Thursday, August 3, 2017

Useless Aikido

Aikido gets a lot of criticism.  Some of it is understandable.  Some of it is emotional, biased, or simply uninformed.  

I recently came across a YouTube video that was well conceived, and pointed out some of the challenges that face practitioners of the art of Aikido.  All arts, and certainly all martial arts, have their challenges, after all.

Here's the video.

I'll spend the rest of this blog commenting on individual points made in the video, referencing specific time tags in the video.  I admit, in advance, that most of my comments will be in the form of rebuttal, I'm afraid.  I have my biases.  :-)

  • 0:15 - " of the worst styles ever invented."   I've heard a lot of criticism, but I've never heard that!  I would like to know who "some people" are.  Wonder what they're basing it on...
  • 0:25: "issues 'plaguing' the art."  Seems a bit harsh. I have read that Aikido's popularity is waning, but then I've read the opposite, too.  In any case, whatever might be "plaguing" the art is surely heavily editorial.
  • 0:30 - I like his organization: Training Methods, Techniques, Philosophy
  • 1:10 - "[aikido lacks] an element of live, full-contact, sparring."   I understand what he's saying. We don't spar, it's true.  But we do have training forms that are less choreographed than the standard Uke-Nage drills -- everything from simple experimentation and Kaeshiwaza, to Jiyu Waza and Randori.  Furthermore, I think it's disingenuous to draw too clear a line between "sparring" and "drills" in other martial arts, because "sparring," by its very nature, is also controlled and limited, just like drills, just to a lesser extent.
  • 1:25 - The author is correct -- we practice by doing.  Over and over again.  We talk about getting the movements into our "muscle memory."   The few times in my life that my martial arts training (Taekwon Do and Aikido) came into play, they did so through pure instinct.  We train on the mat so that the motions become a part of us.
  • 1:40 - I agree with the author that, in an Aikido dojo, we generally don't practice with a "hostile and resisting opponent."   One might argue that this is because we wish to continue training.  I've tried resisting, and regretted it.  Boxers wear gloves.  Other arts use pads.  Many use mats.  In Aikido, we use "sincere" attacks.  It's not easy, and we struggle with it all the time.  I've often said that a "real" attack is anything but "sincere."  A real attack is deceptive, nonlinear, unpredictable; a real attacker who knows what he's doing will not give up his center readily.  My opinion: we don't train for organized battles with other martial artists -- we train to protect ourselves and others against the bully throwing a haymaker, and his buddies backing him up.
  • 2:00 - Regularly training in a competitive environment is valuable.  We don't do that in Aikido. Sometimes I wish that Aikido competitions were more popular (they do exist).  But competition is fundamentally in opposition to the very idea of Aikido -- and, frankly, I think the Aikido competitions that do exist are quite silly.   I think the best think to do is to take one's Aikido training into other arts -- Judo, Jujistu, whatever.  I think it's wrong to fault any martial art because it doesn't encompass everything that all martial arts have to offer.
  • 2:30 - Here, the author is fundamentally misguided.  Yes, many Aikido techniques are developed around a single, focused "contact point" such as a wrist, a forearm, an elbow, etc.  But to even state that the attacker is being controlled by that single point of contact is fundamentally mistaken.  This is merely a contact point.  If that contact point is lost, another presents itself, and the basic concept of Kuzishi (taking the opponent's center) still remains.
  • 2:40 - Ummm... if your opponent's body is too far away from you, you're doing it wrong.  
  • I will agree, however, that some techniques require more control at the contact point than others.  Such techniques are better suited to some situations, and some people, than others. In our dojo, because of the style our Sensei comes from, we show many very joint-oriented, direct techniques, which, perhaps, might be better suited to bigger, stronger practitioners.  But then, as my first Sensei once said with a twinkle in his eye, "Make no mistake. Any martial art is more effective against an opponent that is smaller, weaker, slower, and less experienced."
  • Anyway, my personal style is probably less tied to very joint-oriented techniques, if only because many years of taking Ukemi for such techniques has left me with some chronic discomfort in my wrists.  I tend to like to move, and move big.  But that's just me.
  • Speaking of which... at 2:54, a gentleman shows how he thwarted in his attempt to execute Kote Gaeshi by an opponent that stiffens up and resists.  Were I the teacher, I would coach Nage to MOVE!  In the video, he's just standing there, trying to execute the technique with his arms.  Yeah, that won't work.  "Keep moving, you'll get someplace you know." (quoting our own Briele Sensei).   
  • 3:15 - NOW you're talking.  HIPS!  But it's not always about keeping hips close to Uke.  It's really more about using the hips to execute the technique -- this can be on the "inside of the donut," or the outside.   Just not in between.
  • 3:45 - Here's the Kote Gaeshi that didn't work.  Hey, Nage -- let go of that technique and strike to Uke's exposed throat, and watch that wrist loosen up.  ANY technique can be an Atemi for the next technique.  And, by the way, all the "flippin' and movin' around" is GOOD!  You ended up with Uke's back.  That's Aikido, dude.  Aikido wasn't the problem -- your "plan" was the problem.
  • 4:20 - I take issue with the word "passifist."  There's nothing "passive" about Aikido.  While it is true that, in Aikido, most techniques can be effectively applied both aggressively or gently, depending on the situation -- this is unusual for a martial art -- that is not to say that Aikido is passive.  That's like saying meditation is passive.  It's not.  It's the opposite.
  • 4:30 - rigid?  Well, no.  It is true that we often, in the dojo, find ourselves saying "well then I would just to 'this' -- but that's not really Aikido."  I don't see that as rigidity.  I see that as focus.
  • 4:40 - People have asked me about Aikido being "purely defensive."  I would, in general, agree with the author's assessment.  But I'd take it a step further.  I'd say that I am hard-pressed to see the "nage" in most high-level encounters as even being on the "defensive."   Aikido is about seizing the initiative.
  • 5:00 - I agree with the author about "engaging first" sometimes.  Sometimes, the only right response to a situation is a brick to the head.  That's not Aikido.  But I think O'Sensei would agree.  Aikido is about balance -- and blending is best balanced with attack -- or at least the threat of it.  I've likened this to the idea of diplomacy.  The best diplomats carry very big sticks.
  • 5:10 -  Fundamentally incorrect.  My Sensei teaches that we can apply the same techniques on the mugger in the dark alley, and the beloved but drunken uncle at the party.  The mugger gets his face buried in the concrete and pinned there, while the uncle gets placed onto the couch and pinned there.  It's all about how one defines and "effective" technique.
  • 5:40 - Comparing Aikido with Judo, Jujitsu and Wrestling for their ability to subdue a single opponent on a mat is like judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree.  Aikido is about "multiple attackers, weapons everywhere." (quoting Sorentino Sensei)
  • 5:55 - I agree that the basic idea of "using the opponent's momentum against them" is found in many martial arts. But, again, this misses the point much of the time (and the "entire art" of Aikido is not "defined" by it).  It's not about using the energy against them.  It's about blending with the energy and blurring the boundary between "us" and "them" in the first place -- temporarily, at least.
  • 6:25 - we call it "timing" too.  :-)
  • 6:30 - (similar to my comment at 2:00) I agree that competition is missing in Aikido.  I just think it's better that way.  I mean, just LOOK at them at 7:15.  It's laughable! Take Aikido out into other kinds of competitions -- don't bring it into Aikido.  Blech.
  • 7:30 - And there, finally we have it.  "the art only has value as a supplementary form of training."   I tend to agree.  But I think that's true of ANY martial art. If you want to learn to wrestle, then wrestle.  If you want to learn to punch, then box.  If you want to learn to kick, then do Taekwon Do.  If you just want to learn to fight, go to bars and pick fights.  But if you want to learn about the very nature of conflict and its peaceful resolution, I'll see you on the mat.
Domo Arigato Gosaimasu

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Stay Flexible

 Aikido training can be really, really frustrating.

 I've coached many beginners, and many parents of younger beginners, that Aikido is different than most other martial arts, in that the learning is considerably less linear.  I think that this nonlinearity is one of the two or three key factors that contributes to the very high rate of attrition, especially early on in our training.

 But, it occurred to me in class today that learning non-linearly doesn't necessarily mean learning more slowly.  It's just harder to measure progress.

Remember that when we train in Aikido, we usually do it in some sort of set form, or choreography.  We work on some particular technique, the way Sensei is showing it.  This is, of course, partially because we trust that Sensei knows what they're doing. But it is also simply a way of focusing the class, so that we can train together.  Any given technique may not ultimately, eventually, work for you exactly the way it's being shown in every situation or with every Uke.  When you find yourself frustrated by not being able to make your technique look like Sensei's technique, rest assured that, in the long run, that isn't really the point.  Ultimately, eventually, your technique will look like your technique.

So. Keep trying to do what Sensei is showing.  Keep your mind open. Just be aware that, even if your technique does it look like Sensei's,  it doesn't mean you are not learning anything!  Someday in your training, the things you're not even aware you're learning will come through.

I once had a teacher tell me "Aikido isn't something you try to get better at." What he meant by that was that you simply need to keep doing it.

Domo Arigato

Friday, April 28, 2017

Nikkyo and "rule number one"

Hi y'all

I hurt my wrist (again) in class yesterday.

Over the years, I've developed some chronic weakness in my right wrist, which manifests as pain. I believe that this is probably the cumulative result of years of taking Ukemi from Sensei, whose Nikkyo is legendary, topped off by several notable events while working with other students -- all of which I can vividly recall (see below).   I often wear a wrist brace during class these days, to limit the bend in my wrist during techniques like Nikkyo, Shihonage, and Kote-gaeshi.  Sankyo doesn't happen to affect my wrist as much (yet).

I have always learned, or at least honed, most of what I know through taking Ukemi.  I need to feel it to understand it.   As a teacher now for several years, I also regularly take Ukemi to feel what the student is doing, and to show a student how to execute technique effectively.

Lately in particular, I've tried very hard to slow and soften our training around Nikkyo in particular, because this is a technique that comes on very quickly, applies a lot of pressure to a very focused part of the body, and doesn't leave a lot of room for Uke to adjust when done aggressively.

In the past few years, I have re-injured my wrist while taking Ukemi several times.

  1. During a brown belt test, during jiyu-waza. Very physically strong student.  The pin was so tight it hurt my wrist.
  2. During jiyu-waza with another brown belt student, during Shiho-nage.  I didn't move to a break fall quickly enough, and my wrist was left to take the brunt of the technique.
  3. Recently, during jiyu-waza with yet another brown belt student.  I stupidly grabbed mune-tori, exposing my weak wrist (and I wasn't wearing my brace).  Very strong technique, and I just didn't move quickly enough.
  4. If you're seeing a pattern here, I'd also like to point out that I, myself, once came very close to injuring a fellow student when I was 1st Kyu.  Brown Belts are dangerous!  :-)
  5. Finally, I remember being injured during Nikko once during normal training with a lower-ranked student (right after I showed her how to make an adjustment -- silly me). 

In my own training, I am going to have to take better care of myself.  For instance, I must ALWAYS wear my wrist brace.  Also, during Jiyu-waza, I must try at least to attack with my stronger hand, or perhaps in ways that won't necessarily result in a wicked Nikkyo.  Also during Jiyu-waza, break falls are my friend, and I need to live up to my own teachings and be completely ready to take a break fall when it's there, to protect my wrists.  Finally, during regular training, I simply need to insist that we train slowly and gently.

"Rule Number One" of training is "Be able to train the next day."   That is, don't get injured.

I think "Rule Number Two" is "Remember Rule Number One."