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.