May 22, 2011

Night of the Living Groupons

So, last Friday night we had arranged a special night of training - I was calling it 'Better Half' night, when all the guys were free to invite their "better halves" - wives, fiances, girlfriends (and family and friends, of course) to training for our 'Taijutsu Primer.'

I figured it was about time we create an opportunity for others who don't train regularly to gain insight into defending themselves and protecting others as well as perhaps see us and training a little differently. The plan was to introduce the Primer, setting up a grand experiment for all of us to test the durability of this contextual training. I didn't plan on training all night and figured we’d be across the street clinking margaritas before long (we eat tacos every Friday night after training - it's like a thing). The night was also to give opportunity to watch delivery of the concepts – important because I want the senior guys to have a firm understanding.

So, the plan, if there was any plan, was for a fun night all of us could remember, a night when we passed on the training to those we want to have it most.

And then a 'Groupon' happened. No, not a 'grope on' - a group coupon. For those living under rocks, on Mars, with earmuffs on, here's the Wikipedia entry:

Groupon (a portmanteau derived from "group coupon") is a deal-of-the-day website that features discounted gift certificates usable at local or national companies. Groupon was launched on November 2008, the first market for Groupon was Chicago, followed soon thereafter by Boston, New York City, and Toronto. As of October 2010, Groupon serves more than 150 markets in North America and 100 markets in Europe, Asia and South America and has amassed 35 million registered users.
The idea for Groupon was created by now-CEO and Pittsburgh native Andrew Mason. The idea subsequently gained the attention of his former employer, Eric Lefkofsky, who provided $1 million in "seed money" to develop the idea. In April 2010, the company was valued at $1.35 billion. According to a report conducted by Groupon's marketing association and reported in Forbes Magazine, which was reported by the Wall Street Journal, Groupon is "projecting that the company is on pace to make $1 billion in sales faster than any other business, ever".
Got it? Well, I didn't got it. 

When we showed up for training we found, like, 15 people waiting for their Groupon lesson - my Groupon lesson. Turns out the Center had signed up with Groupon to offer classes at - you're going to love this - a 95% discount where $1 gets you $20. And our little Bujinkan class was first to bat.

Read the Fine Print.
Now, granted, it would have been nice if someone had, like, let me know, or something. But, whatever - Banpen Fugyo! Ichi go, Ichi e! I only regret that I have but one life to - you get the point.

So, with around 30 people in the room, we quickly realized that our little Friday night get together just got real. This was not a punishment, it was an opportunity. See, almost all these new folks had zero experience - no training background whatsoever; this was to be their very first time. I thought that fortuitous. And before starting, I had a chance to go around the room, shake hands and chit chat - these were nice people. Clearly interested, they had spent their whole dollar to take a chance on what it would get them. It bought them time with me. And I gotta tell ya, I let'em have it. 

Who's here for martial arts training, I boomed at the room. They raised their hands. Great - we're not going to do that. They looked at me like, huh? Instead, we're going to look at what makes martial arts work.

Martial Arts weren't invented for self-defense, I said. For the last 100,000 years mankind has had a very effective form of self-defense ... it's called running away. Martial Arts were developed when we couldn't run away, when we had to protect others.

I told them this was easy, and natural, that they could already do it, and we were here to coach it out of them. We trained for about an hour - the room was raucous and exciting. With just a little coaching, these new folks - our better halves and our new friends - settled in. With a welcoming and respectful attitude, we had everyone moving with coordinated goals in short order. People who had never trained before were soon taking balance, gaining leverage, and downing partners with their maneuvering. Smiles were wide and laughter came easy - these folks were having fun and recognizing something no one had ever pointed out to them. And ... no one got hurt - always a bonus.           

After an hour, they were done - I could see the shift from enthusiasm, the quiet onset of fatigue signaling the brain is full. With everyone still smiling, still having fun, I brought it to a close -remember, less is more.

At the end, I told them this was a gift from us to them, but that it was now their responsibility, and it would not get better without training. I also told them it was their choice as to what they would do with it - would they use it to bully others or would they use it to prevent such? And I told them Jack Hoban's "Bully" story. 

We bowed out and thanked everyone for coming and they thanked us. Turns out, some are planning to come back. And if they do, that's great. They really were good folks.   

And then we gathered up our little group, now with few new faces, went across the street and had a taco.

Man, was it good.

May 13, 2011

The Ukemi Primer

Hi James,

Thanks again for the great mail, really insightful! I especially like this idea of using two concepts to illustrate a third, I will definitely try to use this next time I take the class.

I think you absolutely nailed it with the comment about people "waiting to be taught". Sometimes, even when doing very simple drills which emphasize creativity, some students still want me to demonstrate the "right way" first. Of course, they don't realize that I have as much clue about the right way as they do! Every opponent, every situation is different -- even in training -- so all I can do is provide examples, rather than pre-baked solutions. However, when they get into the swing of things, they can really use their creativity. I did a balance breaking drill the other day when the tori had his hands stuffed into his belt. I overhead in the changing room one guy complaining that he couldn't do anything from that restricted position and his friend answering: "oh, but the guy I was training with took a step, twisted, then stepped then twisted again in the opposite direction and then..." etc.etc. I hadn't even shown them anything, just said: "now do the same drill this time with your hands in your belt!". As you say: less is way more.

One issue is also with the students' preconceptions of what "martial arts" actually are. Some come from a classical Japanese martial arts background, some come for self-defense, etc.etc. But whatever it is, they have an idea beforehand what training should be. In this context I think it takes them a bit of time to adjust to this way of teaching.

Thankfully they have fun, which means that they come back to training. Also, most people in the Bujinkan resist this kind of training, preferring more quasi "koryu"-style training. I really wonder about the future of the Bujinkan sometimes!

By the way, what is your "ukemi primer"? It sounds like it could be very useful!

The 'Ukemi primer' is similar to the Taijutsu primer in that we are trying to let students discover the principles rather than merely show them techniques.

Ukemi is known as the prevention of injury and is a way of moving, sensing, and ultimately preventing harm. It is often paired with Taihenjutsu, a method of manipulating the body - rolling for instance - to adjust and move within our surroundings to escape or prevent harm. There are a number of techniques representing Taihenjutsu Ukemi, but it is only truly learned through experience. I train the concept as learning to use the body to 'give way to gravity' – a larger lesson, in itself, for the betterment of Taijutsu in general.

In training, we do a lot of falling down. But dropping to the floor is much more than simple synergy with the opponent’s action, it is 'releasing’ ourselves from harm. Ukemi is directly related to Otosu, release, and the act of releasing and transferring our position, momentum, and advantage into our next movement and moment. Just like Taijutsu, there is no beginning or end, only inherent and necessary change.

I like to characterize Ukemi by the phrase, “the body has no corners,” an idea Hatsumi sensei first introduced and works well to frame the feeling. A helpful way to think about Ukemi is the way a baby moves on the floor. The position they sit in is very similar to Position 1 from Junan Taiso/Makko Ho. This is where I begin teaching Ukemi to new (and old) students and it is the start of the primer.

When first practicing Ukemi, there are several aspects to keep keenly aware of – they are very similar to aspects of Junan Taiso/Makko Ho:

1. Activation of the posture (spine)

2. Positioning (re-positioning) to create potential energy/momentum

3. Giving way to gravity to proportionally use space/kukan

Begin in Position 1 on the floor - a seated position, draw the feet in toward the groin, the soles of the feet come together, and there is at least a fist’s distance between the groin and the heels. If one cannot for whatever reason draw their feet into this first position, then draw the feet in as comfortably as can be managed. The back is straight. The shoulders are back, thrusting the sternum forward. The torso rests on the sitting bones of the buttocks. The hands rest on the ankles.

Now, activate the posture - have the feeling of trying to touch the ceiling with the top of the head. Feel the sitting bones in the buttocks and look up, leaning backward until the edge of losing balance. Know this position and feeling well. Tip just a bit more and lose the balance, falling backward. As you fall, round the back, and extend the legs straight forward, bringing us back to the seated position. Don't rely on muscle to bring us back in balance, rely instead on reshaping the body's form to produce counterbalance.

The lesson here is that positioning, how the body is shaped/aligned, creates and affects our momentum, both potential and active. When we change the positioning of the body it should naturally create either active or potential energy to 'swing' us, if you will, into a new position. Shaping the body by expanding or collapsing its form provides the necessary functionality to give way to gravity, the proportional use of the space around us for maximum benefit. All of this may sound different from the position, leverage, initiative principles of Taijutsu, but I assure you they are in fact identical - I'm using slightly different terms to paint a little broader image.

The context training comes in when we challenge students from this position to 'get to their back' or pick up a weapon or shape themselves in accordance with their environment - roll through a doorway, for example. I've used yoga mats and paper plates to provide visualization for movement - change a person's direction on a yoga mat to get them to do forward, back, side rolls/movement, and paper plates can provide beginning and end points. I've also placed backpacks in people's arms saying it was a child and challenging them to stand up, roll over, whatever, but not harm the 'child.'

The point is to unlock functionality rather than limit it with technical procedures. If done successfully, students will be able to move in an easy and relaxed manner, becoming comfortable on the floor, and even performing various techniques naturally without ever being shown them first. I usually wind up saying, congrats, you just did a front roll, or whatever. Once they 'get' the feel for moving, refining it by naming, explaining, and demonstrating it becomes far easier.

I usually cover:
Forward turnover
Backward turnover
Sideways turnover
Forward/backward/sideways roll
No hands roll
Controlling movement with position
Moving with weapons, equip (backpack, flak vest)
Two-person Ukemi drill: one taking the other's balance, the other returning to balance

The bottom line here is this type of training gives folks a context, a base, a framework from which the rest of their understanding can organically grow. If we think of techniques and principles in terms of language, then techniques are our vocabulary, the words we use to shape and refine our meaning. But simply knowing a lot of words doesn’t necessarily improve the way we communicate, which is what language is all about. Think about it: were we to simply learn words in a new language with little to no idea of how those words fit together - no grammar, no accent, no conjugation, let alone how this new language 'thinks' (Japanese and English think completely different) - we'd simply end up with a bunch of words we could jumble together, but this would not improve our communication and meaning would be lost.

However, if we know the principles of communication - context, content, and delivery (again Taijutsu: position, leverage, and initiative) - it places us in the pole position to learn and utilize any new vocab as we may need and see fit, thereby broadening and even maximizing our inherent ability, granting us opportunity for further efficiency - maximum effectiveness, with minimum input.

Can you see the difference in learning principles first and refining techniques afterward, rather than learning techniques first and reverse-engineering their principles? I think it works well one way, but becomes clumsy the other, in this case, like a person trying to impress us stringing $10 words together, their meaning (ability) may become shallow. But there are many ways to comprehend training and we have to use what we think is best at the time, changing as change is necessary.

I hope on some level all of this will help. But please bear something in mind - it's not our job to make anybody good; taking responsibility for the ability of others is too much. But what we can do, what I believe we are obligated to do, is provide the very best opportunity for others to get as good as they can. But this means we can't just be good, we gotta be really good.

Keep in mind, Taijutsu and martial arts are not the same thing. Training is not complicated, we just think it is, and sometimes design it that way - I've seen commercial models ransom information to students and ultimately misconstrue the attainment of technical procedure as the single key to higher ability, compelling students to keep chasing that next technique with little understanding of what to do with it.

Pair this with blurring perception by imitating philosophy we really don't understand or choosing to look no further into a clarified mindset, or worse following a dark road of training to become a "killer" (I saw one guy stitch the words "BAG OF EVIL" onto his gear pack) and we've really got ourselves trouble. So, in my opinion the last thing we should do is confuse our comprehension (or anyone else's) with too many details, especially early on.

Let's keep it simple: endeavor to discover the right mix - for each of us - to unlock our physical potential and clarify our perspective based on a sound ethical philosophy.

Let's keep going! We'll make it!


May 10, 2011

The Taijutsu Primer

Subject: Beginners training again

Hi Jim!

Recently I had the opportunity to take the beginners training at our dojo again (I'd stopped recently due to baby-related activities), and this time I was taking the class by myself. I was hugely inspired by your recent posts on training methodology (Ode to a warhammer, the girl who learned taijutsu in 10 mins, etc.) and I think that the classes went very well as a result. Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me for really enjoyable and educational training.

It was especially nice to hear from one woman who had literally just started that she found the way I taught to be much more "fundamental" or "basic" than the other instructors and so she could get a grip much more easily on the training. Having trained with Steve in London and attending your seminars plus discussions, blogs, etc. I think that you guys have a really great way of training, especially for beginners who have no context to begin with.

One thing I noticed is that it's very easy (at least for me) to slip into teaching techniques as it is much, much easier than teaching principles. Coming up with a good drill to illustrate distance/balance/timing is a lot harder than "hey, here is my version of Ichimonji which I picked up from a DVD". Also, teaching techniques conditions the students to "win" when they are tori. A really valuable thing that I picked up from training with Steve was "get hit!". I find myself constantly reminding the students that getting hit or making mistakes is perfectly fine and that this is how you learn. As my instructor says: "it's always frustrating to do something that you can't do!". I think (I hope!) that the students are responding to this and finding the training ultimately more rewarding as a result.

So, this is a long-winded way of saying "Thanks!" for all the inspiration! If you have any fun drills that you've been doing recently, I'd love to hear about them.

il Colosseo, 80 AD
Always great to hear from you! Very happy these ideas are working - we've been having much success with them and are planning to take them even further. In fact, we've created a 'Taijutsu primer.' Much like our 'Ukemi primer,' it is geared to transfer physical understanding through contextual movement. Its elements are Taijutsu principles, position (re-positioning), leverage, and initiative (which is like timing, but not exactly); they are introduced solely as waypoints during the primer and are usually only confirmed to the student once they are actually doing them.

The idea is to coach the student to navigate through their movement with a partner with only as much information as is absolutely necessary, which, it turns out, is hardly any at all. In fact, in this case, less is not just more, it is way more - I've gotten people moving with just a sentence or two and (here's the weird part) without showing them any kind of physical example, forcing them to do it on their own and make sense of it.

The Pantheon, 126 AD
Remember, people are up against their biases - waiting to be taught, which seems to shut off their own cognitive skills, and waiting for permission to become able, appealing to us as 'expert' for confirmation and approval of what they are doing. Therefore, one of the jobs in context training is to eliminate those biases and reactivate the student's own 'common sense,' thus empowering the student to own their movement. The way this is done is by allowing the student to discover it for themselves, so the last thing they need is a lot of yakking from us and multiple technical examples. Just let them do it. They will.

Oculus of the Pantheon
It is difficult to describe the primer because as we move through it I am gauging comprehension, making points as needed. I was thinking of writing it out to create some sort of checklist, but decided otherwise, concerned it would simply become a technique in and of itself, which it is not. However, I think it might be helpful to at least have a framework.

The key is to use two principles to illuminate a third. For instance, if talking about leverage - balance - then show it through re-positioning and initiative. If describing re-positioning, show it through leverage and initiative and so on - two will always get you the third. Think of Pythagoras and his theorem.

First, set the tone - this is important. Tell students this is easy. Tell them martial arts are natural and they can already do this, you're simply going to coach them through it. Psychologically, this eases their mind.

So, here we go: Take their hands. Then move and take their balance. Show them that re-positioning breaks their balance and gives you leverage. Let them do it to you. Get their feet moving and allow them to connect re-positioning with breaking the balance. Once they've gained leverage, show them this is the time to keep moving, but in a new direction that places their partner into an even worse state of balance and they fall over.

Piazza del Popolo
I usually emphasize only a few things throughout all of this: breaking/taking balance and downing partners to their back or stomach, because it's a solid outcome everyone can get. Also, make sure they 'give way to gravity' and let it work for them - this has to do with having enough space/position. The last bit is to emphasize 'leading' the opponent - think 'leading' in dancing - instead of waiting for the opponent's attack and reacting to it (more on this below).

Now, increase the distance between partners - make them reach for each other. Same drill, same outcome, same feeling - re-position, break the balance, gain leverage, change direction, re-position and so on.

Now, sit everyone on the floor. Start over by them holding hands. Same drill - take partners out of balance and to their back or stomach, but they have to stay on the floor, no standing up. You'll be surprised to find how creative some people's movement will become here and with little direction. Just keep telling them to put partners on their back or stomach. Now, increase the distance - make them reach for each other. Same drill. To switch it up, you can have one of them stand up mid-movement to gain leverage on the other.

Trevi Fountain, Bernini design, 1762, Rome
Lastly, stand them all back up and repeat. And that's it. The less talked about the better. You can even add weapons. Done it. It works just as well (I've had newbies using a hanbo successfully inside a few minutes).

Suffice it to say, the student needs to comprehend just three things to begin successful application:
1. Maneuvering begets opportunity
2. Opportunity begets advantage
3. Advantage begets maneuvering

You can think of it as (initiative begets) re-positioning begets leverage begets initiative begets ... and so on. Or think of it like this - where students need to be moving, what or how they need to be moving there, and when to keep moving.

Throne of St. Peter, Bernini, 1666, St.
Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
See, positioning is actually re-positioning, we never really stop moving, ever. I mean, even when we stand still, the body is still shifting itself minutely for balance. So, this re-positioning - moving to a new location - physically places us into new space that may hold opportunity to use against the opponent. Leverage occurs by recognizing the opportunity of that new space to upset the opponent's equilibrium, which grants some advantage against them - we're in balance, they are not, we can strike them, they cannot strike us.

Once we have secured some advantage, however small, we can exploit it by again changing direction and re-positioning. In effect, we can increase our advantage and decrease the opponent's opportunity to gain advantage over us. Like I tell my folks, the more we get the opponent thinking about themselves (by gaining leverage on them), the less time they have to think about us, and that's a good thing.

Now, it may seem like the key to all this is just to keep moving, or breaking balance, or something, but it's more complex than that. It's really initiative, the most obscure of the three, that provides the gravity here, the connectivity, the 'God particle,' if you will, to the scale that balances position and leverage. Students are out to create and control moments, 'lucky' moments, which are by definition, 'in the right place at the right time.'

Michelangelo's Pieta, 1499, St. Peter's Basilica,
Vatican City. He was just 24.
So, 'when' becomes the crucial decider - when students move, when they change direction, etc, which is why this concept of 'leading' the opponent is so very important to any success here. Waiting for the opponent is useful only at the very beginning (allowing them to take hold from a grab, for example), so students can measure balance. But once they've done it, have a sense of it, move away from the idea quickly making sure students are consistently ahead, earlier, than their partner/opponent. This is absolutely vital. Don't let them get grabbed - make sure they are moving with enough space to gain leverage on their partner (this is where partners actually start to contribute to their own demise).

Now, were you to explain all this to a new student, they would jump off a bridge. So, don't. The trick is to allow it to occur on its own, casually - remember, this is something they can already do, they just don't realize it. Our job is to allow them to realize and recognize it. Context is the key - clear away only what they do not need, only what impedes them (generally too much information - like this write up!) and folks can do this on their own.

See, when you dissect it, it really doesn't sound very cool, does it? But, I'm telling you, when it hits, and that person "gets it" - look out, you're in for some awesome. This is powerful medicine because at the end you tell them it is now theirs - they own it - it is their responsibility, it will not improve without continued training, and they should use it only to defend themselves or protect others, thus 'activating' them. The smile alone is worth it.

Michelangelo's The Last Judgement, 1541, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
The power of context is a funny thing - we usually take it for granted, like this: Tomo and I are invited to dinner by one of her friends - a lovely young couple, with a three-year-old boy, who is adorable. So, we have a nice dinner and the whole time the kid is racing around playing with his toys. I engage him at one point playing with this exaggerated clock, where the dial spins and makes noise and the kid can set the time and all kinds of crap.

The kid's having fun, so I look at my watch - 10:30pm - and I say to him, can you show me on your freaky little clock thingy, what time this is? And I show him my watch. He looks at my watch, looks at the clock, back at the watch, the clock, watch, clock ... And I'm thinking, just move the clock hands, kiddo. And then Dad strolls over, "He's three. He doesn't know time. We're lucky if he shits in the bathroom."

See? What a lesson in context! Forget teaching students to tell time, understand the nature of time, contemplate time - maybe we should first make sure they can shit in the bathroom.

Let me know how it goes. I'd appreciate any insights.