April 23, 2015

Taijutsu Truth: Drop Out the Power

From a work in progress, Taijutsu Truths.

At class many years ago, Nagato sensei said:
Power to the martial artist is like alcohol to the alcoholic…We must strive to have the same will as the alcoholic who says, “I will never drink again,” and never does. This is the same with relying on power in training.
This was tough for me. As a senior in high school, I weighed a whopping 135lbs with my shoes on. I was seventeen years old and the giant of my family at five-foot-six inches. I was ultra lean and had been lifting weights since I was 13, so I was deceptively strong.

Before graduating, I bench pressed almost 290lbs – more than twice my own body weight. A few years later, in college, I did it again at 150lbs, pressing up 320lbs – 20 lbs more than twice my body weight. So it seemed only natural, during martial arts training, to compensate for larger or stronger opponents by meeting their power with my own. But I came to realize that for training in Taijutsu, relying on my physical might not only promoted a false sense of confidence, it was a tremendous weakness.

Just like "shit happens," we should say, "strength happens." For too many, it’s a foregone conclusion – when stuck in the mud, gun the engine. But in habituating that response, we’ll only ever be as strong as our next opponent. We can defeat power with power only so often, and those times don't include the countless situations where even our strongest would not be enough.

There's always going to be someone bigger, stronger, and faster than us. I'd also include someone with more weapons than us, better odds than us, more opponents than us, meaner than us, even less to live for than us. See, relying on our power alone is a weakness, for there are just too many variables that can work against us in which our might is the inappropriate response. We should always strive to be smarter, cleverer, and ultimately more skilled than our opponents. In that way, power becomes just another option among many.

Mark Hodel, a high-ranking Bujinkan instructor and close friend, once told me there are three kinds of Budo: good Budo, bad Budo, and bad Budo done well. “Bad Budo done well” relies on power. But when one is used to forcing techniques like this, it becomes very easy to lose the edge in a fight and get taken. Power requires so much energy that we can't help but act in obvious ways that are easily detected. We wind up giving up information, like our very intention, that if discovered under conditions of conflict could cost life itself.

Were we to face off with someone in a potentially life and death encounter, undue power could create a terrible opening. Physical might here is like the quintessential wind up before the haymaker, or the leg that cocks back before a spin kick – a telegraphed opening. If the opponent senses it, they can use that opening against us. With any reliance on power it's assured one will eventually face defeat. Typically, those who continue this kind of training become disillusioned, because their progress slows or in some cases stops all together. It also becomes increasingly more difficult to lose this kind of movement and mentality the longer the training is sustained.

Taijutsu is not supposed to rely on power, strength, or speed to overcome opponents. Instead it has three basic principles of advantage: position, leverage, and initiative. These concepts are more elusive to understand than strength, so training toward mastery is difficult, but the rewards are that much sweeter.

As a Budoka, one has to not only understand the "when," "where," and "what" of a technique or maneuver, but also the "why" of it, our context for usage and justification. This "why" is a tactical as well as a strategic issue (try not to confuse these two – strategy is your overall goal, the tactics you employ get you there) and can be betrayed by reliance on power.

Now, I'm not saying we should never use power – sometimes we’ll have to as we'll need it in a fight. But we should never rely on it in our training. In this way, when we put power into our "powerless" movements to save, protect, and defend self or others, we can have greater assurance in the outcome we need. Continue this way of training and after a while, one's confidence grows and gets stronger. And strength of confidence is a far better attribute for our overall life and ability than how much ya bench.

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