18 Oct

Balancing and Unbalancing

Steven and Rod working last year on the needed balance and posture to unbalance, throw, and disarm “uchidachi”

Kuzushi! is a common term used in Japanese martial arts. I first heard the term and had it demonstrated to me in the Burbank YMCA in 1973. I began my path of martial training with Kyokoshinkai karate where I was introduced to kuzushi (founder of that karate system, Mas Oyama, was also later in his training a student of our martial forebear Yoshida Kotaro). I was to continue my learning on the concept years later in Gendai jujutsu and Nanka style Judo training.

Kuzushi, as I studied it in that context, was comprised primarily of our learning to push/pull opponents in proper timing to take advantage of making a gap in their balance and therefore unbalance them for a throw. In karate, it is often accomplished with kicks (…think yoko geri to the hip joint) that blast an opponent off balance.

Coming to train in Nami ryu Aiki Heiho with James Williams sensei, I was introduced to a more classical understanding of kuzushi. In our roots and training stemming from Don Angier sensei’s Yanagi ryu, we learn the term “gathering” to describe the act of bringing about kuzushi through “soft’, fluid, and subtle connection. This exploded my viewpoint from pushing and pulling to everything that is not pushing and/or pulling.

Coming from, and conversely adding to, kenjutsu…kuzushi becomes a principle/concept/understanding of the more or most subtle capacity for taking away balance from uchidachi . With a katana, this is often done with movement and subsequent effects on peripheral vision-based reactions. (It can get a lot more complicated than that…. bringing psychology, psyche, and conditioning into the equations).

Angier Sensei showing tantojutsu responses in the 80’s

The capacity to unbalance others begins with the capacity to develop and enhance balance in oneself. The understanding of the delivery of deception to an opponent is one of the hallmarks of advanced kenjutsu training.

Fundamental jujutsu and kenjutsu training in this context, requires conversely, first the understanding of how to balance oneself… or as we pass down the concept in Nami ryu, through the initialization of the practice of finding alignment with gravity.

Staying balanced, while unbalancing another person is one of the core skills that we use a wide variety of practices to gain and acquire a facility for the understanding and use of kuzushi.

In the clip below, you will see Williams sensei demonstrating a sensitivity exercise to help develop fine motor skills that can become accessible (through diligence) under duress. This is a very different idea of kuzushi than what I learned originally in that basketball-gym-dojo in Burbank.

Look for future posts that address this very deep element of the martial arts of Japan, and the nuances that can separate the quintessential lethal force engagement training of the samurai from its more modern formats and derivations.

Training and Learning Concepts at the Dojo of the Four Winds
30 Sep

Opening and Entering

Kodachi – Incoming!

Doing research this week, I was watching some video of an advanced proponent of a martial art from a different region in Asia. The gentleman teaching, who I became aware of in the late 1980s, had been someone my late mentor and hero Lester Cohen had trained with on occasion. Lester told me this practitioner was the real deal when it came to mastery, and since Lester was the real deal when it came to mastery, I occasionally wonder what I can learn about his art from the cheap seats of youtube.  

Wondering about students in this tradition I came to see that several of them have media posted, and I was surprised how different they looked from their teacher. I, of course, also resemble this remark and understand that more is often revealed over time. However, I noted two things in particular that were different. The first was that the teacher (unlike his students – with one exception!) was always ENTERING into a strike or a grab. He always attacked the attack. It was evident in his eyes and in his movement. The second difference was the very subtle OPENING and closing of his hips that I identify as the engine of the outcome(s).

Entering starts with a mindset.

Entering starts with a mindset. Don Angier sensei liked to show the effects of opening his eyes wide as he came forward. His openings, well, they entered. The first time I tried to execute kata with Kuroda sensei, I felt frozen by his intensity and pinned in place by his forward movement, which happened paradoxically before he started to moved towards me. Sparring with Williams sensei over the years, I constantly find myself being driven backward, usually by his jab or some other variant of Tsuki (突き).

James Williams Sensei throwing Randy George

It’s not the finger!

Opening happens where the pelvis and the heads of the femur interact. This internal movement generates external movement in the hips. Driven first by will, and later by conditioning and the change that happens as we become what we train for, we learn how to unpin our feet from the ground and deliver energy that waves (nami 波) generated from our center. This is the boundless engine that I want always to be operating. By opening, we move in a place that is different from where we are connected to others, and they are moved without perceiving the origin or generation of that movement.

29 Sep

Kata is Theory – part 2

Okay, so what? Tell me something about using it….

A few months ago, when engaged in ne waza (ground grappling) randori, or “rolling” as my GJJ practicing friends, training partners, and sons like to call it; I realized the Shishin Takuma ryu jujutsu kata were the antithesis of making grappling agreements. This was a very big “Doh!” for after 20 years of (not enough) practice.

Reflecting on new meaning

These (not really) unarmed kata seem to be stylized and are difficult for us bigger lumbering types. The knee pains begin with the starting positions of seiza and “sagamai” or other kneeling evolutions including or similar to tatehiza and iaigoshi.

From there, the movements are meant to be sudden, light, and avoiding. The attacking hand positions are training for being attacked with weaponsi including a tanto or other type of hidden blade. The grabbing motions are meant to hold or distract you for being sublimely “shanked” or stopped from accessing your weapon at hand.

Working on the movements in jujutsu kata many years ago…

 “Ukimi”, meaning floating body, is to be learned for the movements and management of an attacker….or for an attempted arresting relationship.

So what happened? I started to think about all the ways those katas taught me to “not be grabbed”, to “not be stabbed”, and to “not agree” to grapple. Of course, if you get caught by a good grappler, ground fighter, or jiujitsu guys like my sons… well you better be able to pass the guard or reverse a mount.

But…what if…I could use what I have been learning to move differently, play a different “chess” game than before, and take that matrix of movement from “olden time samurai” to keep out of the mangle? What if I breathe and move a little more slicker than before because I learned a bunch of what seemed like difficult and awkward kneeling positions that allowed for in-between movements that are hard to follow?

I moved to not connect, by getting-closer-not-avoiding, and let the other guys get sweaty. I worked on getting out of the way from kneeling and prone, instead of swapping guards. Now… a lot more work ahead with the guys in the dojo. I’ll probably get a lot of it wrong until I get it right. Come join us if this kind of thing is maybe for you.

Training at the Dojo of the Four Winds in Encinitas in 2018.

 Ah so desuka,  sensei. Domo arigato gozaimasu! I think so very much!

24 Sep

Kata is Theory – part 1

Shinbukan Kata: Sublime! Here Kuroda sensei demonstrates with some of my Shinbukan senpai

When I first met Kuroda Tetsuzan sensei over 20 years ago, he had just arrived to teach his first seminar at the Dojo of the Four Winds. He gave each of us attending a copy of a handwritten treatise on the “theories” that he would begin to teach us. This information is held dear by those of use who received it, and what followed from that information and the following days of training became the crack to the door of understanding kata as taught in koryu….as taught in Shinbukan…as we came to practice it in our Nami ryu kata.

“Real fighting changes endlessly” was the phrase that released me from the bondage of trying to understand kata as a drilling system for what to do situationally. Situations that never really showed up “in a fight”. I came to understand that the bunkai of my karate training was no longer something I needed to struggle with, and that the flowing Korean hyungs I learned earlier in life had more depth in them than what I had accessed.

Those initial one and two person kata were more choreography in my limited understanding, yet a good base for beginning to learn coordinated movement. That early practice and learning opened me to a search for meaning that I often found easier to see as pattern conditioning.

The quandary of these movements eventually took me to search out the paradoxical interactions that I experienced in the truly adept practitioners I have always been lucky to find on my path. These were the folks that were different than what my very special teacher Big Dave described as “wind dancers”.

Sato Bu Kan‘s Nami ryu sensei, Josh Ross, makes kata understanding very accessible – make sure to sign up for his great newsletter!

Kata as a training system became deeper, principle developing, and formed a new codex for movement, and eventually how I changed (and continue to change) who I am in the context of kenjutsu. The context of kenjutsu, became with guidance, the purpose of jujutsu and the skillsets that we incorporate into our Aiki Heiho.

Further down the decades, Kuroda sensei described the evolution of what he was teaching us, with the phrase “at first you cannot move”. That taught me that there is never an end in sight. Williams sensei keeps getting better with a compass pointing to “strive forward”.

Challenging kata henka (variation) with 2 attackers

Coming to understand our Principles of Nami ryu, beginning with Williams sensei’s teaching that we do not “contest for space…” has allowed me to stop trying to survive kata practice through winning; instead, I can focus and become more critical about my precision.

In turn, when practicing waza, pattern drilling, sparring, or just working on my understandings of movement, I now have the opportunity to question how the katas are working in me, instead of how they can work on someone else.

19 Sep

Combative Intimacy

Sanrin Mountain Dojo starts every week off with a topic, and/or Principle, that we focus on. Our Mokuroku is followed, and sometimes what we are studying is the training for a specific Principle of our art. This week we focused on “Combat Intimacy”.

What does that mean for us?….for me? Well, first off, my students and kohai in Nami ryu Aiki Heiho will teach me more that I can hope to teach them. This is the reason for our dojo in Flagstaff, Arizona. I have taken keppan and owe back what I have learned and need to continue practicing.

The “Way is in Training”, and skills are all perishable. After 47 years of training, I tend to forget, unless I have someone do something wrong that someone once (who we foolin’? …. always more than once…) corrected me on. Helping us stay “evergreen” is one of the reasons we have mokuroku, a listing of the relationships that remind us to always learn by constant practice and relearning of the basics of our art.

Our focus on “intimacy” this week was on some of the ground and close “grappling” aspects of jujutsu and kenjutsu. Yes, even swords get close, although generally, they allow for not getting as close.

On Saturday we took the relationships that allow for the quick drawing of a sword from the saya and saw how just that movement can foster the other party’s movement. The closer the better, as a magnification of the effect, happens with the closest direct connection and body movement that is generated without tension.  We often refer to that as “soft”, but other words like: “pliable”, “flexible”, and “aiki” refer to this connection. We work on breath a lot, as the fuel to the engine that releases tension.

Earlier in the week, this combat intimacy was explored when we studied the entry and applications of hadaka jime, which is often referred to as a “rear-naked choke”. Turning in to a choke, getting closer, is one of the counterintuitive applications of defending and mitigating this very dangerous relationship. Another martial artist of note recently suggested remembering this with the phrase: “always face your problems”.

Survival dictates the need to learn how to deal with something everyone can learn to do, like causing people to have difficulty breathing or getting blood to their brain.

Speaking of choking and intimacy, everyone should know the “Heimlich Maneuver” as well. I learned it first when getting my Boy Scout First Aid Merit Badge at about the time I started learning martial arts. I believe Self Defense starts with personal health and the safety of ourselves and others

Want to learn more about this topic? Reach out through the contact form so we can arrange to get you started in training for a lifetime.

Written by: Jim O’Connell