Monday, November 22, 2010

The Tape Loop

I’ve become a big fan of Ming Chew’s The Permanent Pain Cure book after being introduced to it by Rob John. Ming Chew offers some fantastic restorative postures to resolve various imbalances and tensions in the body. I refer to them as postures rather than stretches, because they’re much more similar to various actively engaged Qi Gung or yoga positions rather than gravity driven ‘stretches’ per se. Something that I really appreciate in his book is what he calls the “Tape Loop”. After describing how to get into each position, he then offers a checklist which he recommends constantly running through while you hold the position. “Is my chin tucked?” “Is my jaw relaxed?” “Are my arms straight?” “Is my back flat?”… This loop allows you to self correct while holding the fairly challenging postures and helps you get the maximum benefit from the exercise. This also creates a very active exercise both mentally and physically. Instead of focusing on a stretching position and then letting the mind relax as the body is affected by gravity, the brain is constantly engaged in balancing the many contrary forces and tensions throughout the body.

I recently realized while thinking about teaching paradigms in martial arts that the best teachers I have had are the ones who have been able to offer a consistent tape loop or check-list that allows me to self-correct my mechanics and movements. While there is a lot to be said for simply getting in and ‘getting –er-dun’ in the martial arts, the kinds of martial arts that I have been most attracted to seem to actually require this kind of introspection to move beyond the very basic stages.

My Shinto Ryu (sword) teacher, Robbie Pellett, gave all of his students the gift of a consistent tape loop of events as he described the preparation for and execution of the soto (outside) no kata (forms). As I prepare to perform a kata I still hear his voice, “Inhale gather, exhale settle, focus, knees squeeze, raising the right hand, open the sword, begin drawing with the sword vertical, rise up, turn the blade over…” When I began teaching Shinto Ryu myself, all I needed to do was to say the tape loop that was already playing in my head. It’s my hope that these short sutra will live on beyond me and beyond those students I now train with, a thread between the generations. Their existence helps assure that certain lessons are transmitted to every new person who trains.

My aikijujutsu teacher, Neil Yamamoto, gave his students a subset of the principles taught to him by Don Angier based on Yanagi Ryu. Unlike the ‘principles’ many of us are used to from Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere, Saotome Sensei or any of the other authors or books about Aikido, these principles are very specific and create a framework for understanding how an aiki interaction can and should work. We use about 25 of the principles, although we find that focusing on about 10 is a good place to start. Neil spent a lot of time with us going through teaching techniques and having each of us verbalize what we were doing and how the principles applied to those actions. If there’s was a place in a technique that wasn’t working, we began troubleshooting by going through what principles were in play at that point of the technique. Often if we were stuck it was because we were applying the wrong principle to that point, or we (more often than not) were not really applying any of the principles. Trouble transitioning in osoto-gari? Are you pushing with the legs or pulling? Technique not going anywhere right from the get go? Did you get center to center contact first? Not only did this give us the tools to begin to troubleshoot our own movements, but it gave us a way to examine other practitioners and teachers. I remember being at a seminar with Motomichi Anno sensei a few years after beginning training with Neil. While Anno sensei would describe what he was doing as, “Enter! There, now not there! And walk…” I saw 10-12 principles carefully being applied in a very particular sequence. Instead of being left with nothing more than a feeling and the phrase, “there, not there!” I had a lexicon to specifically describe what was happening between uke and nage. Further when taking ukemi, we all became aware of what the various principles felt like when they were applied to us. When someone tried to do a technique without any of these principles, or in violation of these principles, many of us found our body had an immediate awareness that kept the poorly performed technique from affecting us anymore. We didn’t need to resist anything because our bodies could tell that there was nothing actually there. We had been given a tape-loop, a checklist of things to be aware of in our training.

This ability to analyze and understand how an interaction worked was one of the things that made what Akuzawa Minouru and Rob John (of the Aunkai) so striking when I first met them. Here were people whose bodies did not respond to the principles I had been training the way just about anyone else I had met did. Certain lines of kuzushi that would topple most folks I had trained with did effectively nothing to them, and yet they were very dynamic in their movements, not cold and static. Luckily Rob and Ark were both very generous and again I found a checklist of sorts within their paradigm. This time, it was introspective, teaching about sensations and connections within the body. I think it’s also why despite having only a few days over several years of direct interaction with them I was able to get so much from the Aunkai model. Since Ark was not only teaching postures, but what to feel and how to examine the body in a very self-critical manner, the exercises themselves offered instruction if you were willing to really engage the brain and actively examine your own structure. The flip side of this is that it’s possible to ‘do’ the Aunkai exercises for years and get nearly nothing from them if the student isn’t willing or able to actively enter into the mental aspect of the training.

Is this the only way to train? Certainly not, but for me, having an internal checklist or tape-loop is an invaluable tool and the ability to intellectualize these kinds of principles can only serve to make me a better student and teacher.

Friday, August 27, 2010

That's a joke... I say, that's a joke, son

It's Friday, so I'm probably like most of you and in need of a bit of humor to help transition into a welcomed weekend.

This is an excerpt from a post authored by the esteemed Professor Peter Goldsbury on Aikiweb where he quotes another work. I quote Professor Goldbury because he edited the material to remove names from the original piece to protect the innocent.

The context of the original quote is Kisshomaru Ueshiba's alleged knowledge/ignorance of what may be called ‘aiki' skills.


"So let us imagine an announcement, either publicly or privately, among the ruling body of the Aikikai:

I, Ueshiba Moriteru, have just realized that our million strong international organization has gone down a terribly wrong path. My grandfather taught a particular, very sophisticated training method that was derived almost in whole cloth from Daito-ryu. He then amalgamated it with a charismatic neo-Shinto sect that is now the provenance of elderly devotees, and subject to attempts by a number of yakuza organizations to take control of their millions of yen in money and property. My grandfather used to practice, obsessively, specific drills which enabled him to achieve this internal power. My father rejected this, post-war, and focused on turning the cryptic phrases on peace among the three realms into a feel-good formula of cooperative, pseudo-martial circular movement to enhance relationships among people in the world. This has vitiated it as a martial art, but allowed the art to spread to almost every country, to have a level of political and social influence in our own country, and made beaucoup yen as well. To my shame, however, was stunned to find that not only I, but almost all of the shihan are ignorant of my grandfather's skills. We must recover them - but not through the weird religion grandpa followed. I've tried reading his writings on the subject, and if the old man wasn't crazy, he was eating lots of mushrooms behind that shrine in Iwama!

So I have, in secret, reached out to the various Daito-ryu organizations, the very groups we have slandered as old-fashioned and violent, the legacy of a psychopath that my grandpa was well shut of. Daito-ryu, the martial art transcended by our (not) magnificent aikido. To my surprise, Daito-ryu turned out to be either incredibly rigid, constipated kata training, or ridiculous dive bunny techniques that make Takeda Yoshinobu look normal, and a few really amazing guys who said that they would only teach me if I revealed what I learned to no one - ever. And they sort of indicated they would lie to me and not teach me anyway, while pretending to.

So there is only one way to save aikido - we must get outside help. We have three choices that I have found: All would state that they are far form the best at these skills, but they are the only ones who are not focused on a specific school. So we have, here, a large wheel and we will spin it and draw lots, and one third of the shihan will be dispatched for five years to study in Tokyo with a pugnacious little man named A - yes, please forget that we've previous accused him of being a gangster and told everyone to stay away from him; one third will go to Colorado. I'm sure all the shihan will get along fine with B, a 60+ year old ex-Marine ex-engineer. He will have a number of personality traits that they will like - obsessively meticulous and abrasively direct. (That third is ordered to give your bokken and jo to the nearest deprived child and buy pool noodles, the new weapon of the Aikikai). The other third will go to the eastern USA to study with a man named C of whom - well, just go and find out - I can't explain him easily. When you all return, we will have a battle royal in the Budokan, in pitch dark, like my grandfather used to do, with live swords (because aiki is universally applicable) and the team that survives will be responsible for promoting that version of aiki forever after. Actually, the Colorado group can use their pool noodles if they choose.

Me? Ahem. Well, my son and I will be making trips to a small village in China, just in case our elder brothers might somehow have something that we Japanese have not yet had an opportunity to improve. Just to check."

That's a joke, son. It is, isn't it?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Congratulations, It's a ...beginners class!

In July 2010, I'm officially having something alien to me take place - a real beginners class!

I know, some of you were expecting me to say something like "heartfelt concern for people" but this beginners class is easier to do and really mean. This started more as a joke as do most of my decent worthwhile ideas, but with a bolt of lightning and a sprinkle of pixie dust, it sprang into life.

I'm enthused about the possibilities, but at the same time, I am a lazy sot by personal nature. I'm not wanting to do this, even though I see the need and know it needs to be done. My sense of 'giri'(look it up in an English Japanese dictionary if you don't know what it means) warred with my slothful nature and won.

I'm grateful to have had the Seattle School of Aikido board members agree with my proposal and to shift their schedule to accommodate this class.

It's not that I can't teach beginners, it's that I'm usually not of the temperament to do it. Kind of like with children, I am better suited to the Uncle role. But my class size has grown to the size that I can't manage it properly unless I separate the beginners from seniors to focus better on the needs of both.

This serves three purposes. One is to develop teaching abilities of the seniors as they learn more about how to present things in the manner I want used for Icho Ryu. I plan to do this by having them observe how I present things in class and help teach the beginners class. We plan on splitting the class into smaller size groups with a senior leading each group.  Which is why I post this on the Our Bad Budo Blog rather than on my Wretched Hive of Scum blog, it impacts the TNBBC seniors, not just me as the chief instructor.

Two, it brings in fresh blood with new (and somewhat used) students who need drill in basic skills like ukemi and conditioning, need to learn more etiquette, or simply want to get a different perspective on learning in a structured environment. Three is it makes my life easier to have more time on mat and to be able to focus better on the needs of beginners and those of more senior students in different classes.

At some point of course, some of the beginners will evolve into senior students and will become hopefully, students in the senior classes. Joining the senior class will be up to each student and how hard they work to get not only the physical aspects, but the social and mental aspects of class and learning the skills and techniques taught, and when I think they are ready.  Some will do so, others will not. And eventually, if they stick with this stuff, then they will assume their roles as assistant instructors in the beginner's class.

Thus, we continue the cycle of learning and teaching for students of budo as taught in Icho Ryu, as they spread their budo seeds, prior to their deaths upon the banks of the Bernie Lau River and Rice paddy-Sugar cane field drainage canal, before gasping their last breath and rotting away into mouldering bones and residual nourishment for the martial arts scavengers who skulk about the river banks, looking for knowledge and not quite empty bottles of beer and whisky. (I live in Seattle, there had to be some reference to salmon.)

My class for beginners is going to be mainly for those who have already pestered me enough to get me to let them join my class, those who have asked for more time on mat, and for members of Seattle School of Aikido, where Icho Ryu makes it's home, who want a different approach to budo than offered by aikido.

I'm not opposed to more people joining my class outside of those mentioned above, so we shall see what happens. The main limit to numbers in class is what I think we can manage to teach effectively, and that creates a low number limit. With seniors on the mat helping, I can't see room for any more than the toes and fingers on on a small child after an unfortunate encounter with dad's lawn mower, which is about 12-14 maximum.

Why a small class? Because I'm not foolish enough to think I'm any good, or an effective teacher, but I'm also good enough to know I'm better than learning from a book, unless you completed the Hooked on Phonics course. Then, a book might be better.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Anti-SPLAT Method!

Want to learn how to make someone (uke, “bad guy”, etc.) go SPLAT!?

Well then listen up, kid…

Stop trying so damn hard to knock ‘em down! Yer givin’ it all away with yer herky-jerky entry... givin’ ‘em a chance to evade/push back/redirect/etc.

The ONLY way to actually learn techniques and body skill is to be slow. Take every stance, every movement step by step. Each self-identification of activation and relaxation in solo exercises (correctly) is the key to building the “frame” and the engine to drive it. In two person kata and in two person testing exercises, including randori, one can test the limits of these aspects of strength. Be patient and get ready to be humbled (isn’t that the best way to find teachers? Sure helped me!).

Now I’m gonna switch it up on ya:

Internal “frame” and “groundpath” etc. are foundational, but a good technician, w/ excellence in techniques, focus, and strength will do just fine—if the “internal MA expert” has no ability in regard to technique, timing, or real fighting/ at the very least randori experience. However, if you combine the two, “frame/IMA strengths” and technical/experiential/attitudinal skills, what you have is exceptional.

Ain’t that so?

So why are standards so low???

I guarantee, if you knock your dojo mates over ALL THE TIME and they knock you over ALL THE TIME, at least one of you is full of crap.

A few rules for not fooling yourself:

Don’t believe that “teaching techniques” are applicable to fighting any more than video game perfected techniques are. Instead, use them to better understand a condition in you or your partner’s body during said drill.

If there is a technique you consider a “fighting technique”—Why? Have you played with it enough to feel strong in a high stress environment? Randori? Really?

Learn to hit someone hard for real, and learn to take some hits. No one I have ever met, amazing badass SENSEI or not, hasn’t been clocked. Suck it up. No one is an invincible ninja.

Be patient and be energetic at the same time about your training. Expect slow results, but love it enough to get some dang results. Visualization, solo practice, 2 person practice, and testing are the keys.

At least that’s my best guess…

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Seattle School of Aikido Seminar - March 19-20, 2010

Sponsored by the Seattle School of Aikido, Icho Ryu Aikibudo and Shinto Ryu Iai Battojutsu.


Andy Dale
Chief Instructor Xin Qi Shen Dojo

Allan Kaplan
Seattle School of Aikido

Robby Pellett
Seattle School of Aikido
Yoseikan Budo

Mike Sato
Nihon Goshin Aikido
Icho Ryu Seattle

Neil Yamamoto
Chief Instructor Icho Ryu Aikibudo

Just another seminar? Definitely not, and if you can make the time, this would be a gem to add to your 2010 seminar schedule. These instructors aren't on the seminar circuit, but all are long time students and teachers of their various arts. Their teachers list includes names like Tohei, Mochizuki, Dobson, Lau and Tchoung. You have a mix of aikido styles, including Yoseikan, Nihon Goshin, Ki Society and Aikikai . For more variety, you have iai battojutsu, taiji and aikibudo. Do some research on these instructors because they tend to fly below the radar. To get them together at the same time will be a special time for all.

The cost is only $75 for Friday and Saturday, and you'll be supporting a good cause. As Seattle's oldest aikido dojo, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, she needs a little work. We're replacing the worn out canvas mat with tatami mats - they're a little safer to train on and are much easier to keep clean for health reasons. Toss in a little paint and some serious sweat equity and this place will look pretty sharp in a few months.

Of course, if you just want to donate, it would be much appreciated. But we'd rather have you come train with us and have a good time.

More info as it becomes available at