Saturday, 17 March 2012

Posture before Technique

Posture before technique: three simple words but incredibly important to get them in the right order. Last night was an excellent session; it was the first lesson since passing my blue belt grading and I was really excited to get on the mat. Yet as it turned out I was not allowed even one week to bask in my blue belt glory! There was a sensei from another Dentokan dojo visiting whom I had trained with before on a couple of seminars. Almost from the outset of the lesson as we warmed up and I was knee walking as is customary at the start of every session he pointed out that I wasn’t using my hara (roughly translated ‘core’) adequately enough. Then we began the session proper with practicing standing Uchi Komi Dori (overhead strike defence). He invited me to demonstrate the technique on him to which I obliged followed immediately by a critique. Then he intimated that it was my turn to uke as he became tori. I raised my arm to simulate the strike and he executed the technique. It was very apparent that his technique was superior to my own in every way; his carried with it power and control that mine lacked. Thankfully he is a very good teacher and took me step by step through the parts of the technique and where I was going wrong. Similar to the nuances I needed to make to my knee walking, this time I needed to apply more body weight propelling myself forward as I blocked his strike while keeping myself straight and centred. I mimicked his movement trying to get my body position right before attempting the technique again. After his tuition I performed the technique again feeling much more power this time and feeling far more confident I was in control.

Then his attention turned to critiquing the next part of the technique – the Shodan wrist lock. Once more he demonstrated on me allowing me to experience what it should feel like – his grip was powerful and firm but not to the point where he was crushing my hand and then he lifted my arm above my shoulder, driving his body weight through my shoulder and pinning me to the ground. My balance and strength had been completely broken and negated. In comparison my technique was weak and ineffective. His very simple advice to me was posture before technique: take the posture and then and only then execute the technique. Whereas before I had been trying to apply the technique without sufficiently taking my uke’s balance now I was able to see that this is bad practice. 

The rest of the night we trained in a few more techniques again following the same pattern of demonstration, deconstruction, critique and then reconstruction resulting in a much better technique.
It felt like a steep learning curve, especially the emphasis on the importance of hara in executing a technique; but it felt fantastic to be given so much attention. For a moment the thought passed through my mind “can’t I just enjoy being a blue belt for one week?!”  and then an even more profound and deeper truth dawned on me: at the end of the day, the reason his expectations were so high of me was because I was now a blue belt; that was the wonderfully empowering and reassuring truth behind all of his criticisms - I had reached the level in which the little mistakes can no longer be overlooked or tolerated because I am no longer still a beginner.  Now more is expected of me, more is asked of me, more is demanded of me and that feels good. Once I had realised this I didn’t want the lesson to end; I just wanted to continue learning. I want to be a good martial artist; a good Jujutsuka. The only way I am going to be able to achieve my ambition to become a Dan grade is to listen to my instructors, absorb their wisdom and to learn from my mistakes. Tonight I felt like a white belt – a complete novice compared to this visiting sensei and that is exactly the attitude I need to practice with week in week out.

Posture before technique.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Jujutsu as Budo

This may seem like an extremely obvious statement, but I believe it is so important to understand and practice Jujutsu as a pursuit of Budo. Last Wednesday at my Aiki-Jujutsu lesson I was practising for my imminent grading, focussing on my variations for the Hiji Dori techniques (elbow locks) and thought I was doing okay. I hadn’t spent much time working on my Hijis but was fairly confident I understood the mechanics. As I practised my sensei came over and inspected my form. Then he made a comment I wasn’t expecting – he said my technique looked “shit”! It was a humbling experience (and just a little disconcerting two days before my grading), but an important one. As I reflected upon his comment it opened my eyes to the importance of pursuing Jujutsu not just as a Martial Art for the dojo but as a Budo for self-protection. As my sensei stressed it must work on the street. If I am applying an atemi then I need to strike with a sense of conviction and power, not apathy. My technique should also be spontaneous, at the end of the day you can’t predict what happens on the street and an attacker is not always going to telegraph their attack or comply if your technique is too telegraphed.
 I have a long way to go before my Jujutsu becomes a fully practical Budo, but I now understand the path much more clearly. Mushin and Zanshin, the concepts of one-mindedness and alertness are two of the most fundamental principles in Martial Arts – they takes years of training, but are something to be developed for the improvement of one’s awareness and ability to react appropriately for your own safety. Ultimately you don’t want to over analyse the situation otherwise you will not be able to react in time: reaction is always slower than action. Jujutsu should flow naturally as an extension of yourself in response to the particular circumstances of the assault. Jujutsu means the art of yielding and so one’s self-defence should be in response to the attacker – their energy, their aggression and the nature of their attack. This at least is my current understanding of what it means to yield.
 The ability to yield and truly utilise the art of Jujutsu is the pursuit of Budo. Budo is the art of war – it is not sport, it is not about point scoring, competitions or medals; it is not for entertainment, it is about doing what is necessary for self-preservation. Jujutsu in its traditional Japanese form such as Aiki-Jujutsu whether a derivation of its Daito Ryu or Hakko Ryu form is Budo. Judo and BJJ have evolved into combat sports with rules and regulations. These have benefits in themselves but should not be mistaken for Budo. Budo is about living and dying in the moment – kill or be killed, there are no second chances, no tomorrow, no next week only the present.
And so I went to my grading trying to keep all this in perspective. I was far more nervous after my sensei’s comments two days before and was very self-conscious of my Hiji Dori techniques. The grading itself felt far more intense than I was anticipating, but I suspect that was because I felt very anxious. There were only six of us grading, four white belts and myself and a blue belt. After the Suware waza (sitting techniques) the white belts left the mat leaving just myself and the blue belt with our two ukes. Here was a perfect example of developing Mushin – the mat felt very empty as a dozen eyes scrutinized our form and technique. I did my best to block out the judges and the spectators and focus solely on my uke. Some techniques I struggled to remember more than others; as I was grading for my blue belt I had to perform a total of 30 variations (both left and right sided). I was very confident in my Kote-gaeshi wrist locks and in my Otoshi’s (throws) but my mind went blank on some of my Shodan wrist locks as well as my Aiki’s and my Hiji’s. Eventually they came to mind, but are not quite ingrained in the muscle memory as they need to be yet.
To my delight I passed my grading and again was given reassuring encouragement in my display and aptitude. What encouraged me the most was the most senior ranking Shihan took me to one side after the presentation of my certificate and told me that he was so impressed with my variations that he thought they were of a brown belt standard! I was blown away by such high praise after feeling so anxious about the whole evening. It feels great to make it to blue belt, I feel I have crossed a threshold on my path towards black belt but there is still a lot of room for improvement. I have achieved as much as I can physically achieve in my time in Jujutsu so far having made and passed every grading available to me; but it will take many more years of training to practice Jujutsu as Budo.
Practically what do I need to improve? My kata still needs refining; my foot movement needs much improvement and my centeredness - to be on-balance when executing a technique, finding my strength not from my limbs but from my core and taking my uke’s posture more are the priorities. It is exciting, even exhilarating to see my next steps to progress as a Jujutsuka and knowing how to reach my goals but it also requires humility and patience. Sometimes it’s hard not to get carried away with the culture of grading and obtaining your Dan grade but it is important to hold everything in perspective. Am I worthy of my rank? A black belt means nothing if you are not fit to wear it. I hope that when that day comes when I grade for my black belt that my Jujutsu will truly be Budo and not just a stylised art form that looks impressive but lacks real effectiveness.