Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ni Otorazu (It's No Different; It's Just The Same)

A modern (and largely Western) idea is that, at core, "all arts are the same."  I've heard people say, "put a hakama (culottes worn in many traditional Japanese arts) on 'x' (doing an art not from Japan), and it would look like 'y' art..."    

Before questioning that perspective, it must be said that the impulse behind it seems pure; the (often impressively skilled) folks who speak in those terms mean to be genuinely ecumenical.  And while it's true that there are only so many ways to move the human body (barring adaptive mutation), that 'inclusive*' way of thinking, ultimately fails to account for the innate differences in structure, characteristics, objectives and approaches between arts, even within a single culture.  As a fairly straightforward example- the following links to videos on Kenjutsu (sword tactics- the use of the two-handed Japanese saber.)  Please see below:

Komagawa-Kaishin Ryu Kenjutsu- Kuroda Tetsuzan, Shihan

Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu- Otake Risuke, Shihan (Emeritus)

Yakumaru Jigen Ryu, Togo Shigenori, Shihan

Umm... not that similar to each other**, sure, all have aspects of batto/iai (drawing), all feature two-person interactive forms, but they don't look, sound or feel like each other.  And those are just three of hundreds of Kenjutsu Ryu that existed in Japan.  Now imagine how the influence of different languages, customs, arms, armor, etc. would be an ocean away.

So why, you may be asking, are my knickers in a twist over this?  Because it is really only in the deep practice of an art that we can begin to fully appreciate the peculiarities of tradition.  To love it for its character and begin to 'know the mind' of the founder and previous generations- that the process of  becoming accustomed to and absorbing the 'feeling' of a Ryu will never come from repetition of forms by rote, let alone by watching from the outside and saying what it looks like***. 

As a younger person it was striking and it still comes up- if you've been around for long enough, you've probably worked with high-level practitioners at (in classes or at seminars.)  The toughest thing to watch is when the subject of a session is something far outside the range of that senior's art and s/he wastes time by trying to relate this art to things that s/he already knows.  You see, rather than learning a new skill in its own unique circumstance, people often opt to filter experiences through the prisms of tools that may not be well suited to what they are being shown****.  In so doing, these practitioners deprive themselves of moving beyond a surface-level understanding- that's not to say that they may not derive some benefit to their 'home' art, but they're missing-out on participating in a fully present way.  If 'it's all the same', we only see the similarities, so there's no depths to plumb.

As a final word, although we humans all comprise the same elements in our bodies and share common ancestors, it's seeing and celebrating the differences, often small, periodically vast, between individuals, languages and cultures that make learning about our species so interesting.  To misquote Devo, "Dare to see Differences."

Yours in appreciation,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, Instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*Being 'inclusive' can result in being reductive though, so it's a bit of a tightrope to walk.
**To make matters more confusing, the last one (Jigen Ryu), considered one of the fiercest dueling systems in the Edo period (1603 - 1867) is descended from the art in the clip above that (Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto Ryu) which is, by contrast, rather gentlemanly.

***Outside perspective, particularly of someone with more experience, can be helpful; quantify what an art is or isn't based on what you see?  That's getting closer to hubris.

****This is, of course, a very difficult thing to refrain from but the work of being an actual student (rather than an adept at something else) is part of the joy of learning.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Kaibogaku (Anatomy)

1. Alignments

This is the first of a series of posts that will touch on some simple tools to enhance basic movement.

For those of us who are interested in physical activity, from low to no-contact ones (like yoga and qigong) to regular-contact (boxing, grappling, etc.) we all benefit from the study of anatomy.  At the beginning, having a gross idea of how muscles, bones and joints interact helps to create a mental model of the activity- as we progress, we overlay that (less abstract) mental model with direct experience of what does and doesn't 'work' for our bodies*- developing core mechanics and increasing mechanical efficiency.  More than just improving technically, efficient movement means a reduced incidence of injuries and the capacity to train better and longer.

If you are lucky enough to study an art that inculcates core mechanics (spinal alignments, proper breathing, power generation, modes of connection and so on) this will be a rehash.  For other folks, here are some suggestions of key things to look for (and develop awareness of) in your own practice- while generic enough for everyone from yogi/yogini to jujutsuka.

Alignment Cues:

Keep knees 'stacked' over the toes
Keep elbows internally rotated (that is, down and spiraling toward your center, not up and out)
Keep the shoulders down
Avoid hyper-extension in all joints
Straight spine **

Are those so simple that they're dumb?  Yes, kind of, but even if you 'know' them, are you at 100%?  Is your chaturanga (plank) controlled or is your butt up and are your elbows close to your sides or flared-out?  Are you hyper-extending your elbow on punches?  As you move, are you rolling over the insides of your feet with your knees pointed out?  Do you complete sword cuts with raised shoulders?

As with any kuden (verbal transmission) the power of these cues is in mindful practice- it is through repeated self-observation and correction that we can begin manifesting more naturally not just 'on the mat' but in the rest of life.


* This stipulation is important- moving in mechanically sound ways often feels like a reduction in power... really, it is a reduction in the need to employ overt physical strength.

**While there is a strong preference for tucking the hips (opening the mingmen) in most arts, the amount varies.  When in doubt, consult your instructor.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In Brief:  Yotenhaku (seizing the essence)

 A couple of evenings ago, I received a call from a telemarketer selling... something (he didn't make it through his pitch, so what he was hawking will remain a mystery.)  The call went something like this:

Telemarketer:  (Loads of background noise in the call center)  Hello, is the the owner of *utter butchery of the dojo name*?

Me:  Er... yes, how may I help you?

T:  Yes, I'm just calling to ask some questions, don't worry, this is not a sales call... how long have you been in business and do you have a website?

M:  Since 1997, and yes we have a website...

T:  So then you've been in business for a while- congratulations on that!  And your main product or service is martial arts?

M:  (Tentatively)... yes...

T:  Are you linked via social media?

M:  A bit.  What is it exactly that you would like to know?

T:  Are you ready to increase the number of customers?

M:  No.

T:  (Pause)'m asking- are you prepared to handle a major increase in your number of customers?

M:  No.

T:  (Uncomfortable pause) ...I'm sorry, what I mean is, don't you want to reach more clients?

M:  No, look, you have re-framed the question twice and you've gotten the same answer each time- this is not that kind of set-up.  I don't sell anything and there's nothing to buy... I don't wish to be rude, but no, I don't want customers... at all.

T:  (Confused, but somewhat relieved that the nightmare call was ending) Alright then, G-d bless you in all things (followed by one of the quickest hang-ups in recorded history.)

It was that phone call, along with a conversation with my instructor and classmate a day earlier, that helped to crystallize something that I'd felt but had never clearly articulated until that moment:  I don't want customers. I don't want clients.  Heck, I don't even want students.  I want people striving to be practitioners my equal (& better) who understand that they train as part of a continuum, polishing themselves while holding the teachings in trust for future generations as our teachers have for us.  As those words leave my keyboard and appear on screen, it seems unlikely that there is a huge batch of market research on that demographic...

Telemarketer-dude, if you're out there and you read this:  I'm sorry if I was overly strident during that exchange but seriously, thank you!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

First-off, welcome to our new blog!  As of now this space will be used to answer questions, announce special events and to (one hopes) spark dialogue about what we do.

Today's topic:  Practice

"If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it."
-attributed to Vladimir Horowitz, pianist

“Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice reduces the imperfection.”
 -Toba Beta, Author

Endeavoring to learn an art, craft or way is inconvenient- it requires the sacrifice of time, money, comfort and energy.  It can also be among the most rewarding pursuits imaginable.  Key to 'mastering' complex skill-sets is establishing and maintaining regular practice (let's say 10,000 hours as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.)  Now, contrast 10,000 hours (and just for reference, there are only 8760 in a calendar year) with the idea of instant gratification.  We're accustomed to seeing 3-minute training montages in films that all but promise that we're all only one pop song away from True MasteryTM.

An example of this way of thinking was shown in an interaction between an American actor and a well-known chat-show host, televised years ago.  The actor had just completed a period drama for which he had to learn some handling of a katana (Japanese two-handed saber) and this interview was to promote the new film.  The set where this took place featured a number of yoroi (Japanese armor), and both host and actor wore kakuobi (hanging belts, the wide sashes used to suspend swords when not in armor) with katana thrust through.  The actor was 'instructing' the host in batto (sword drawing), saying, "okay, now do this very slowly and carefully," then proceeded to draw his own at a reasonable speed.  The host, impressed by how fast it seemed said, "I thought you said slowly!"  The actor, responded in a satisfied way, "yes, but I've done this hundreds of times..."  Right.  Hundreds of repetitions as a daily training regimen?  Great.  From rookie to proficiency?  Nope.

The unfortunate fact is that adepts at any skill seem to ply their trade 'effortlessly.'  What we don't see is how much time is spent working on basics, doing research and failing in order to attain their level of proficiency.  Why is that unfortunate?  Because even if it aligns with native propensity ("talent"), when these folks appear in our televisions (or on stage or wherever) we are seeing the effects of their choices to commit to the hard, unglamorous, 'invisible' work of regular practice.  We don't necessarily appreciate what those choices mean for them as people; we don't see the struggle to get past plateaus in their ability or pushing past resistance to train ('I'll just take today off and work extra hard tomorrow'.)  We see them flawlessly execute with speed and precision, but aren't privy to the months or years of painstakingly deliberate and slow repetition- in short, we enjoy the benefits of their training without sharing in the negatives or having a true sense of the process.

An interesting exercise- choose anyone whom you admire- performer, artist, teacher, etc. and do a bit of research into how long it took for them to be as good as they are.  These folks don't appear fully-formed, they go through extensive studying, training, practice, being fostered, mentored, and lots and lots of failing.  Through failing honestly (with good examples of how to succeed) one starts to understand, at an almost cellular level, what shape one's own gifts will take- there is simply no shortcut for these steps. By having an appreciation for the methods by which others excel we begin to see avenues for us to flourish, while understanding that it is never a quick and painless process.

So why'd I bring up the actor?  Because he was able to convince at least the interviewer (and probably some of the audience as well) that the little bit of practice he'd done was enough, but he's cheating them and himself out of deeper expressions of practice.  It's simple and cute to believe that his ability to do one thing quickly(ish) translates to being a real skill, but it isn't; it's a 'trick'.  A real skill is robust, having been tested under a variety of circumstances, dismantled and reassembled, honed through adversity into something useable and polished into something beautiful; and even then, 'skill' isn't a destination.  It's a moving target- the more you see and do, the more you find 'holes' in your own knowledge and experience, which inspires further research and training, which exposes more holes... it becomes a cycle.

Practice, especially of new material, can be engaging.  The question is, what do you do when it's not exciting and 'sexy' anymore?  Do you continue to struggle with it or do you move on to something easier/shinier?  What you choose to do speaks to who you are (and who you aspire to be.)  Those tough moments reveal surprising aspects of ourselves, sometimes pointing to deficiencies but often demonstrating far greater strength and fortitude than we expect of ourselves.

If you all you want to do is impress the uninitiated, that can be done quickly; focus on the easy or fun parts of training, and you'll miss the greater benefits.  To investigate practice thoroughly takes time; before inculcating anything, we have to encounter and remove extraneous and unhelpful habits, but for those efforts the 'payoff' is more than just the area of focus- we start to learn who we really are.

Working diligently to improve at foundational material isn't fun or exciting (it can be boring, filled with tedium and mental resistance) but it develops the alchemy of 'deep practice.'  And it is in- and through- that alchemy that we experience a full range of emotional experiences, from deep despair to transcendent joy, exasperation to patience, terror to calm simplicity, anger to empathy (and with that, recognize the impermanence of those emotions.)  In short, the process of deep practice connects us to our humanity and when everything is said and done, it is a gift that only you can give to yourself (and to the rest of the world.)
Yours in the spirit of cheerful practice,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo