Monday, 2 December 2013

Something to say!

Sorry I haven’t been blogging for a while. It’s partly because we have had some illness in the family, partly because of college commitments and partly because I haven’t had anything interesting to blog about recently – with over 200 posts under my belt it’s getting harder to find new things to talk about!

However, I finally have something to tell you – I've passed my Nidan grading! It took place on Saturday 30th November, an all-day affair over at the SKK Judo centre near Manchester. It was a bit hit or miss whether I would actually take the grading because of the family illness problems, my husband (and grading partner) had an operation on his ear only 5 weeks before the grading date but fortunately was sufficiently fit to still partner me, so it was all systems go on Saturday.

It was a tough grading! I had decided that I was only going to attempt it once so it was a bit of a ‘do or die’ situation. I definitely pushed myself harder than I did for shodan and the grading panel pushed me really hard – I think they really wanted to see if I had the strength and stamina to keep going when I was clearly exhausted. This is when you realise that it’s your mental strength that is being tested and not just your technical ability. I was the only candidate (out of 10) grading for nidan so I had to do several sections on my own which the grading officers decided to put back to back, so I was on the mats continuously for 4 pretty rigorous sections of the syllabus.

I made a few small mistakes. A wobble in one of my kata, a small mistake in one of my bunkai, a complete transposition of technique in 2 of my ippon kumite i.e. I started with my first technique and finished with my second and then had to do the same with my second ippon (start with the second and finish with the first) so that I didn’t repeat myself. I don’t think they noticed that mistake! I also felt that one of my kicking combinations wasn’t great either. Apart from that I did my bloody best and if I didn’t pass then there was no way I would ever be capable of doing so.

I would have been relieved to have just scraped a pass. I would have been happy to have equalled my score for shodan. So I was ecstatically happy to have scored several marks higher than I did for shodan!
The grading panel were right to have advised me not to grade last June. I wasn’t ready. This last 6 months have allowed me to correct all the problems I had following the last pre-dan and improve quite a lot. So I am now glad that I waited.

I’m so glad that it’s all over now and I can just get back to ordinary training and not be so syllabus focused. We have a lot of new and interesting changes coming up next year on our curriculum and so next year should be an exciting time in our club…

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Friday, 4 October 2013

Martial Art or Self-Defence?

Is there a difference between learning a martial art and learning self-defence?

No! You all cry, by learning a martial art you are learning self-defence, they are (or should be) the same thing.

But are they, really?

I don’t think they are the same thing, not exactly; they are overlapping but serve slightly different purposes. Let me explain….

I think that the difference between learning a martial art and learning self-defence is a difference in purpose, focus and mindset.

Learning karate as a martial art is about preservation of the art for future generations. The purpose is one of ensuring all aspects of the system are conserved and passed on in their entirety to the student, warts and all. The focus is on the art, not the student. The mindset is to explore the secrets of the kata. Exploration of kata will reveal many techniques that have no place in the modern world of self-defence, techniques that are illegal and excessive and would have you in the dock if you were to use them to defend yourself, such as neck breaks.

One hundred and fifty years or so ago in Okinawa the death of an opponent during a confrontation did not necessarily result in imprisonment. The karate master Chotoku Kyan was said to have caused the death of a rival, Chokuho Agena, following a disagreement, by jumping onto him from a tree and breaking his neck.* Today this would be classed as murder but back then this just resulted in a feud between their families that lasted for years.

Social, legal and political systems have changed over the years but a martial art remains pretty much the same – a snapshot of an older time, preserved for historical reference. The kata are like historical documents, revealing the fighting techniques of a previous age. It takes many, many years to learn a martial art.

I am making it sound as if martial arts are irrelevant to a modern age of self-defence. Of course they are not. There is much in these ancient fighting systems that are still relevant to us – the skill is in picking out these techniques and strategies and re-packaging them for today’s students.

This brings me to self-defence. Where the purpose of learning a martial art is about preservation of the art, the purpose of learning self-defence is about preservation of the individual, i.e. teaching students how to defend themselves. The mindset is different. The instructor’s role is now about selecting appropriate techniques from the repository of ancient ones that are suitable for the type of students he/she is teaching. The focus is on the student, not the art.

This is the basis of good Reality Based Self-Defence systems (RBSD) and short self-defence courses aimed at particular groups of people such as women or University students. With RBSD the instructor will have developed his system by selecting a subset of techniques probably from a range of different martial arts and re-packaging them. He will have selected techniques based on what he thinks works best from his own experience or the experience of others and with a knowledge of how violence plays out in the real world and the risks his client group face. I doubt the students would be taught how to snap someone’s neck. The result should be that the students learn to defend themselves adequately in a relatively short period of time.

However, these RBSD systems have their limitations. They will contain instructor bias – the instructor will have chosen only those techniques which he feels are appropriate and will ignore those he doesn’t like. We all have different preferences and thus each RBSD system will be a slightly different microcosm of martial arts based self-defence centred on the instructor’s world view. Techniques that may suit some student’s better will have been lost or ignored and some student’s may find that they trail from one school to another trying to find something suitable.

Going back to martial arts systems, the problem for the student looking to learn self-defence is the opposite. They are being taught everything - relevant and irrelevant for a modern world, often spending lots of time analysing kata moves that reveal only past fighting glories and could not be used today. Amongst this are the highly useful and relevant techniques. Students are often left to pick their own way through this plethora of kata moves, identifying what is useful and legal and what should be consigned to history.

So, is it possible to become proficient at personal self-defence when you are in the environment of learning a martial art?

Well, yes but it relies on two things: a willingness of the student to study and learn about the nature of violence, the law as it relates to self-defence and to think intelligently about the aspects of the art that are relevant to them personally for their own self-protection. Secondly, an instructor who is clear in his/her own mind when he/she is teaching the ancient art (focus on art) and when he/she is teaching relevant self-defence (focus on student). This may prove a longer and more tortuous way of learning self-defence but the student may learn many other useful things along the way which relate to personal development of a more ethereal nature (mind/body unity, character development, a sense of spirituality and controlling one’s own mind and body better). These are things that won’t be learnt in the more pragmatic environment of a RBSD system.

I think it is important that we continue to have clubs that focus on teaching martial arts as art, to preserve the ancient fighting systems in their entirety and to further the historical research into the meaning of the kata. This is as much an intellectual pursuit as a practical one and suits many people.

However, some people have a real need to learn self-defence, either because of personal risky lifestyles or because they work in an environment where they may need to confront an aggressor such as in the police force, prison services or the military. These people may need more targeted training than a martial art can offer and are probably better off accessing a RBSD club or a targeted self-defence course.

These are my personal views; I think that martial art and self-defence are not entirely interchangeable. What do you think and why? 

* ref: Okinawa No Bushi No Te by Ronald L. Lindsey. Page 79.

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Thursday, 22 August 2013

End of summer training.....

We’re getting towards the end of summer training now – just one more week to go…

Summer training was a concept my instructor introduced to our club a few years ago to help deal with the drop in student numbers over the summer holiday period.  Basically, the junior and senior classes are merged into one all summer. For the senior students this means starting classes an hour earlier than usual and for junior students its means they get 1.5 hour classes instead of just 1 hour.

There are obviously pros and cons to merging the classes this way. Sensei has to design lessons that suit the entire spectrum of students from white to black belts and from 6 year olds to middle-aged people. This is almost an impossible task and there are generally winners and losers. The main winners are probably the mid-graders, particularly the older children and adults as the classes are pitched much more to their level. The main losers are probably those at the extremes of the class – the youngest lower grades and the older senior grades.

It has been a challenge for sensei to get the right balance for these classes to ensure everyone gets something out of them. In previous years (in my opinion) the balance has been too much in favour of the children with lots of drills, sparring and games to keep the kids interested. However, this year sensei managed to pick a formula that has worked better for adults too.

We have spent the entire summer focussing on basic kihon and its relationship to the pinan katas, including bunkai. All of us benefit from really drilling the kihon and I mean really drilling the kihon – until you’re dripping with sweat and your legs feel like lead! Our younger or more junior members are particularly benefiting from this as there is plenty of scope for improvement in their basics but we  more senior students are also getting some insights into how to improve our body alignment and correct some simple mistakes or bad habits in our execution of kihon.  I particularly appreciate the opportunity to do this as I was pulled up on some fundamental errors in my basic kihon at my pre-dan course a couple of months ago. I’ve particularly been working on my spinal alignment and hip positioning over the summer and it’s all starting to feel much more natural now to tuck my pelvis under more during stance transitions.

We have also spent every lesson going through all the pinan kata in detail to improve both our performance of the kata but also the understanding of the applications of the kata in the form of ‘pinan drills’. This has been particularly suitable for the more senior students who value the opportunity to work on applications and benefit the most from doing so.

The classes have been very physically demanding all summer.  The warm-ups have been more like demanding work-outs and some of us oldies could have done with a warm-up before the warm-up! We have then gone straight into a demanding kihon session for about 20 minutes before being allowed a drink – and it’s been unusually hot weather here for a change. Then we’ve done all the kata several times each which, as you know, can be a workout in itself. This high-paced, physically demanding karate has suited the teenagers and older children best, though having said that the only students who have had to sit down because they felt ill have been teenage boys. We oldies stoically endure the discomfort so as not to be upstaged by some young pretenders (but we’ve been quietly feeling like death inside).

As Abraham Lincoln said: “You can please some of the people some of the time all of the people some of the time some of the people all of the time but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”  This has been true of these summer classes. On a personal level I am fairly easy to please most of the time so although these summer classes have been a bit of a beasting, on the whole I have enjoyed them and have got a lot out of them. Other students have found them less enjoyable and some students have avoided them altogether. I have missed not being able to work on the stuff that is more relevant to my forthcoming dan grading so I have had to work on that on my own at home but the classes are not all about me and I know that I will be getting plenty of attention as the grading draws closer.

We have one more week of the summer classes and then we will be back to our usual schedule and hopefully back to more application based karate and less fitness based karate.  The kids and junior grades will have gained a lot from working with the seniors and will have gleamed some insight into what to expect as they move up the ranks but will ultimately be better off returning to their normal classes where the pace is a little easier for little ones. Likewise the seniors should all be a lot fitter and sharper with their basics and understanding of the pinan katas but will be grateful to return to their usual training patterns.  

Does the style of your training change over the summer months? What do you think about it?

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Friday, 26 July 2013

Some eclectic karate musings....

Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while, it’s just been a busy time with holidays (had a week in Malta – very nice, and a weekend visiting a vineyard – yes we can make wine here); decorating (new bathroom and decorating my son’s bedroom); gardening to catch up on now that summer has finally arrived (and is about to disappear again); weekend visitors and various other things.

In karate terms: my husband passed his 2nd dan for which I partnered him; I’ve just finished teaching my after-school karate classes for the summer and I’ve been covering some club classes while my instructor has been on holiday.

So, this post is an eclectic mix of thoughts that I have mulled over in my mind over the last couple of months…..

1.       I’ve had a hard time shaking off the disappointment I felt at not dan grading with my husband in June. It’s silly, I know, but I’ve experienced a whole roller coaster of emotions about it over the last few weeks from disappointment to anger to resignation back to anger. It’s ridiculous I should have felt like this. My head told me to wait until November but my heart wanted to do it in June. Attending the grading with my husband was a really hard day emotionally, particularly at the beginning when everyone started warming up and again at the end when certificates were presented. A lesson in humility I suppose. During the actual grading I was okay and I just got on with supporting my husband who did a really good grading. I’m on a more even keel again now and looking towards my own 2nd dan grading in November.

2.       Why do students find it so hard to learn stances? I’ve been doing a lot of teaching recently and I’m always constantly amazed at how sloppy many students are with stances. You can tell them until you are blue in the face to ‘bend the front knee (in zenkutsu dachi)’, or ‘bend the back leg’ (in neko ashi dachi) and they still don’t do it – even at brown belt! When you watch them do kata above the waist they are looking pretty good but watch their legs and there is hardly any attempt to use the proper stances at all. I’ve tried getting them to do a basic kata such as pinan nidan with their arms behind their backs so that they just have to concentrate on their legs but they still just walk through the pattern with hardly any discernible stances! Do you have any effective ways to teach stances?

3.       I think I have found the source of my leaning problem in karate. This problem raised its ugly head again during my pre-dan (it has plagued me for years!). However, my husband seems to have pinpointed the subtle thing that I am doing wrong and I am practising hard now to correct it. It appears that when I am transitioning between stances during kihon combinations or kata I am slightly hyper-extending my back and pushing my hips forward. You would think that this would make me lean backwards but it actually results in me leaning forward slightly when I change stance. I also think it makes my stance transitions slower because my weight is not correctly balanced between my feet and there is a slight pause before I can move. My husband said that I need to tuck my pelvis under more to straighten my spine (like you do in sanchin dachi). When I try doing this in zenkutsu dachi I can get my hip back more and step forward more quickly because my weight is more evenly balanced. I also don’t lean as I step forward. I am now practising to make this feel a more natural movement and hopefully some of my other problems may disappear at the same time i.e. leading slightly with the hand rather than the foot and occasionally losing balance.

As you can see my karate seems like a series of highs and lows at the moment, but that’s par for the course isn’t it.?We’re on a long journey, not in a race. It’s normal to have training plateaus, move forward, slide back again, have Eureka moments or discover small flaws in technique that are holding you back. Keeping going is the most important thing and not letting disappointments blow you of course.

So I am keeping going – I have started training daily, i.e. a little and often strategy. I find training about 7.15 in the morning the best time for me. If I’m not in the gym by 8.00am then in my heart of hearts I know it will not happen! The day will take over and I won’t get around to it, so I’m trying to be very disciplined with myself. I’m determined to crack the problems that plague my karate and stopped me from grading last month.

The biggest battle we all face really is the one inside ourselves isn’t it?

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Friday, 28 June 2013

Karate punching is like swimming...

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How many times has your sensei told you that the power of your punch should originate from the ground? That you draw power from the ground and then transmit it up your legs, through the hips and torso and down your arm. You believe him/her because you respect them, they have years more experience than you and they can punch harder than you (and you should believe them because it’s basically true) but you can’t quite get your head around why it should be true.

Drawing power from the ground gives karate a mystical, magical quality as if Mother Nature herself is giving you some ‘power assist’. If, like me, you tend to prefer more rational explanations then it’s easy to think that drawing energy from the ground sounds like twaddle.  But it isn't twaddle; it can be explained by the laws of physics.

I have recently been privileged to have a sneak preview of John Cole’s excellent book chapter on forces called ‘Push and pull explains all techniques’. I don’t want to pre-empt anything John has to say on this topic before his book is published but suffice to say he mentions Newton’s third law of motion which states: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  If we apply this law to people then basically, when you apply a force to an object it responds by applying and equal amount of force back to you. You transmit some of your energy into the object (e.g. by pushing it), the object transmits an equal amount of energy back into you.  What happens to that energy once it comes back to you depends on several factors: if you happen to be the smaller, lighter object then you will probably move; if you are not able to move freely, you’re restrained in some way, or the returned energy is being transmitted to a small surface area (e.g. you pricked your finger on a needle) then the energy may cause injury to you instead or alternatively you may be able to utilise the returned energy in some other way.

In my title I said that karate punching is like swimming. More specifically ‘drawing energy from the ground’ is analogous to pushing yourself away from the side of the swimming pool to gain momentum. If you can swim then you will know from experience that it is quicker to get some speed up if you push yourself away from the side of the pool with your feet than to just start swimming from a standing start. Why is this? Newton’s third law of motion explains it… push against the wall of the pool, transmitting energy into it and the pool wall ‘pushes’ an equal amount of energy back to you in the opposite direction. Since you are in a horizontal position in the pool (and you are weightless in water) the effect of receiving the energy back is to propel you in a forward direction.

A karate punch works on the same principle. If you take a firm stance and push down into the ground with your feet, transmitting energy into it, the ground responds by pushing an equal amount of energy back into you. Since you are in a vertical position the energy is transmitted upwards (opposite to the direction you pushed in). Though you are lighter than the ground below you the effects of gravity pressing down on you make it unlikely that you will respond by launching upwards (unless the ground below you was a trampoline!) The received energy doesn't normally injure you either because it is spread over the relatively large surface area of your feet (It might hurt more if you just pushed the ground with the top of your big toe) Instead, you are in a position to utilise that returning energy to enhance your punch.  How you achieve that is worthy of a blog or two of its own; suffice to say that with the correct sequence of muscular contraction and relaxation, starting with the lower legs, upper legs, hips, torso, shoulders and finally the arm and fist the energy can be transferred from muscle group to muscle group until it finally leaves your fist!

This won’t happen by chance though – only through training and practice can you learn to utilise the energy that you received via Newton’s third law of motion by pushing into the ground first. Without training this energy will just dissipate from your feet or half way up your legs and be wasted.  The harder you push into the ground the more energy you’ll get back (the harder you throw a ball at a wall the further and faster it comes back to you; the harder you push off the pool side the further and faster you’ll glide through the water).  Punching is only different because we are complex beings and we have to train to learn how to utilise that energy effectively.

The point of this blog post was not to explain the whole physics of punching but to give the scientific explanation (in layman’s terms) of why sensei is right when he says you must draw your punching power from the ground.  Do I make sense?

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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A blog worth reading...

I just wanted to bring your attention to a new blog that I have been following on women's self-defence. As I have mentioned in previous posts I don't think that martial arts training easily meets the self-defence needs of women and traditional martial arts generally fail to address avoidance and awareness training (the pre-event phase) in any detail at all. 

Invicta Self-defence blog is written by Alexis Fabricius who has been training in martial arts for the past eighteen years, and owns a women's self-defense company in Toronto, called Invicta Self-Defense. She has black belts in karate and kung-fu, as well as a strong background in jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. 

Her blog started in March and has so far covered topics regarding safety when on a night out, safety in parking lots, body language, intuition, sexual violence and some simple escapes from grabs. She writes in a very informed, easy to read style. I would advise any female reader (and male for that matter!) who is interested in understanding more about avoidance and awareness strategies to book mark this blog. 

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Monday, 20 May 2013

Pre-dan for Nidan

On Saturday I had my pre-dan course. This is an assessment of your ability to meet the standard for the dan grading a few weeks later. Like I mentioned in a previous blog, I was expecting to grade for nidan at the end of June.

However, the verdict of the grading panel at the end of the course was that I was ‘borderline’ and they have left it up to me to decide whether I want to give it a try or postpone until the next dan grading session in November. My husband (and martial arts partner) has been given the all clear to grade for nidan in June.

Prior to the pre-dan course I would have imagined this scenario of whether to press on regardless so that we can grade together or grade on separate occasions would have been quite a dilemma for me. As it happened the decision seemed very clear cut. Before I had even left the changing rooms I had decided that I would postpone my grading until November and concentrate on helping my husband to pass his in June.

We have graded together on every occasion since white belt, which, if you include our kobudo gradings amounts to 17 gradings; but it was inevitable that at some point our grading schedules would part company. I have done well to keep up with him this long but this time I just can’t keep up, I’m not ready for nidan grading yet and he is. My husband has four years more experience in martial arts than me, he did jujitsu before karate and holds a black belt in that art as well, and this experience massively influences his ability to do karate.

I don’t want to hold him back and I don’t want to risk failure for myself so it makes sense for us to grade separately this time. I would hate to be one of those passed it by the skin of her teeth or pulled it off on the day people. It’s just not budo. I want to feel comfortable in my skin with nidan so I need to be patient and wait.

There are advantages for both of us in grading separately. It is doubly exhausting to both grade yourself and be a grading partner for someone else at the same time. You have to remember their techniques (which may be different to your own) so that you can remember what kind of attacks they want from you at different times during the grading. It will be easier on both of us if we only have to concentrate on one role at a time!

I can now focus on helping my husband to finish his preparations for his grading and make sure I am fully familiar with his techniques so that I can be a good partner for him. I know he will return the favour for me in my preparations for November.

So I soldier on! I will have to do another pre-dan assessment in October which I won’t particularly look forward to (they don’t tend to be very positive experiences for me) but hopefully I will get the all clear next time!

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Friday, 10 May 2013

A kid's sparring alternative...

Kid’s love sparring don’t they? Their faces light up when they are told to get their sparring mitts on and they run off enthusiastically to fetch them out of their bags.

Though I'm not a huge fan of sports karate for adults I do think it’s a great exercise for kids. It develops fitness, courage, reaction times, and a sense of strategy. It also toughens them up a bit and teaches them to show a bit of humility whether they win or lose.

So it is with some sadness that I can’t introduce the kids to sparring in my after-school class. Why? Because they have no sparring mitts! These are kids doing a 6 week introductory course in karate, wearing just their P.E. kits. No gi, no belt, no kit!

To give them a taste of the thrill of sparring I’ve had to be a little inventive. I take in as many belts as I can find (all my old coloured belts, my kobudo club belts and any other spares I can put my hands on) and teach the kids how to tie them on. Then I have cut up several old white belts into strips of about 10 inches long and give them one each to tuck into the front of their belts – this tab becomes the target.

We then do a bit of ‘shadow sparring’ to learn how to move around in sport karate and practice a couple of basic block/punch combinations against imaginary opponents. I then pair them up and get them to use the same technique of moving in to their partner to do a reverse punch but instead of punching (no mitts remember) they pull out their partner’s white tab.

After they’ve each had a few goes at moving in to pull out the tab of an unresisting partner they move on to doing it in a more competitive way with both partners trying to get each other’s tabs. This starts to re-create the energy and flow of a real sparring bout with the kids learning to move around each other, guard their own tab and moving in to grab their partner’s tab.

Once they’ve got the hang of it we have a mini competition which helps to teach them the basic rules and etiquette of a sparring match. I divide them into two groups and sit each group either side of the sparring area. I then call up one from each group (matched for size and age) to compete whilst everyone else watches.

I act as referee and get them to stand opposite each other, bow, get into fighting stance and then at my command (hajime) they start to ‘spar’. A point is scored when one of them pulls out the other’s tab and the match is stopped (yame), the kids are put back to their starting position and the point awarded (ippon). They then bow to each other and off they go again. We carry on like this for a set period (usually a minute) and the winner is the one with the most points. At the end the opponents are brought back to starting positions and the winner announced (kachi). All the kids get a chance to have a go at this ‘shia kumite’.

Alternatives include ‘best of three’ points to win or winner is first to score a point. There are rules about staying in the area and penalties and warnings for bad or dangerous behaviour (not that this needs to be invoked very often!).

The kids really enjoy this opportunity to have a go at ‘sparring’ in this way and seem to get a lot out of it. I have found it a useful way to simulate sport kumite when sparring mitts are not available and many of the same skills can be learnt and practiced in a safe way. I haven’t yet introduced any kicks into this style of sparring but there is no reason not to use roundhouse kicks because our real kumite sessions in the club involve only touch contact anyway and we don’t wear any protective body gear.

Hopefully if some of these kids enjoy my karate sessions enough to make them want to join the main club they will be able to hit the ground running a little when introduced to real sparring with mitts!

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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Should nidan grading feel less stressful than shodan grading?

Why does training for nidan feel so different to training for shodan? I am currently training in preparation for taking my nidan grading in June. Strangely it feels a much more low-key event than my shodan grading nearly two years ago…yes, it really was nearly two years ago, how time flies!

I keep trying to put my finger on why it feels so different. By different I mean that I don’t feel the need to put together a week by week training programme for 6 months like I did for my shodan grading (remember my Countdown to Shodan blog?); neither do I feel so stressed or compelled to train every spare minute.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m training hard and taking it very seriously – I want to pass after all, but it doesn’t seem like quite the big deal that shodan grading did. In fact, I think I made some mistakes with my shodan preparations that I don’t want to repeat this time around.

I think I had placed shodan on a very high pedestal and made it into a much bigger deal than it really was, this is what made it such a stressful time in the months leading up to the grading. I also think that I over-trained a little resulting in a thigh injury and a bit of mental exhaustion.

So, for nidan preparations I have a different approach, different because I am different compared to two years ago…

I am more relaxed than for shodan grading – nidan is not on some high pedestal, it will not be earth shatteringly terrible to fail, I’ll just try again. In fact, if I don’t feel ready to take it in June I will postpone until the next round in December. Please note that relaxed doesn’t mean laid-back it just means that I’m not so frazzled by the task!

I understand my abilities/weaknesses better and have a clearer understanding of what the grading panel will expect of me. This means that I can target my training better to improve my weaknesses.

I understand a lot more than two years ago and seem to learn new things a bit more quickly – I have a greater understanding of the underlying principles that govern all techniques and so I’m more able to apply them to new situations. I think this is the result of all the teaching practice I’ve had since my shodan grading, teaching really tightens up your own understanding of what you are doing.

I trust in my regular training more to get me through. Obviously I’m doing some training at home as well as in class since we are expected at this level to work out our own ippon kumite, goshin waza and bunkai applications – sensei will help and guide as necessary but he won’t spoon feed us at this level.

For shodan grading I worked on a general fitness programme as well as practicing the karate itself. This time I am only training in karate. Why? Because I have come to believe that extreme fitness is not required for the grading. The level of fitness that I already possess gets me through some pretty demanding karate sessions without too much trouble. I think that maintaining the fitness I already have is important but trying to up it for the grading may be counter-productive and risk injury.

Nidan grading is not an extreme sport; it is merely a demanding demonstration of martial arts skills – the stuff I do week in, week out. If my current fitness level sustains me through these lessons then it should sustain me through the grading. Extreme fitness is not sustainable in the long term so it seems slightly ridiculous to need extreme fitness to pass a grading when you don’t need it for regular classes. I don’t see why a grading should require something that normal classes don’t. This is the way I’m thinking at the moment…

So far preparations are going okay, I’m not there yet but I’m feeling fairly confident that I will be by June. I attended a black belt course this weekend and have the pre-dan course in May, then it will be decided whether I am ready for this grading or not. If I get the green light to go for it then sensei will be turning up the pressure in class to get me mentally and physically ready.

If you are a nidan did you find the thought of nidan grading less stressful than shodan grading? Do you think I’m in for a shock in June?

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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Why do we.........observe reishiki?

In general terms reishiki refers to the demonstration of good etiquette or ‘correct behaviours’ in a traditional martial art dojo or club. This can be anything from knowing the correct way to enter or leave the training area, how to address your sensei, knowing where and how to stand in line, to showing good manners and respect to your fellow students. Each club will have its own variation on reishiki but at the heart of all reishiki is the concept of respect (for your club, for your sensei and for each other).

In more specific terms reishiki refers to the opening and closing ceremonies that most traditional martial art clubs observe and this is the definition of reishiki that I want to discuss in this post. The word reishiki is made up of rei (bow or respect) and shiki (ceremony) and is all about setting the right tone for the class and preparing the students mentally for the training ahead. I have been involved in seminars or classes where reishiki has consisted of nothing more than a quick standing bow to sensei at the beginning and ending of class to a rather elaborate and prolonged standing , walking, kneeling, presenting the sword, bowing, more standing, walking backwards, more kneeling, bowing, standing etc. etc .etc - like a rather complicated and precisely executed kata. I had the feeling my head would be cut off if I got it wrong!

These, of course, are two extremes of the bowing ceremony.  A ceremony that is too short does not adequately prepare the students mentally for the training to come. One that is too complicated is just unnecessary and time consuming (in my opinion).

So, what should a reishiki ceremony help the student to achieve?

When we enter a dojo or training hall we are entering a world that is different to the one outside. Our roles and responsibilities inside the dojo are often very different to the ones we have outside. You may be very senior in your career and be in charge of many staff but in the dojo you may be the new white belt. On the other hand you may be an unskilled manual worker outside but a senior black belt inside the dojo. It is important to be able to leave your external roles and responsibilities outside the dojo and assume your ‘internal’ ones. A reishiki ceremony is one way of helping you to make this separation of external and internal roles. The wearing of a gi is another.

Participating in a martial art requires us to learn about and practice violence towards other human beings. Though the mindset of the martial artist should be purely about defending oneself, the techniques often needed to do that are inherently dangerous and violent. It is imperative that training is done is a controlled and mutually respectful environment that is free from ego and machismo. Reishiki helps to create this respectful environment.

When practising a martial art we are benefiting from the skill and teachings of our martial arts forebears, people who devoted most of their time to developing and perfecting techniques and encoding them in ways that we can remember today. Reishiki is a way in which we remember and honour the founders of our system and also honour the sensei that teaches us that system today.

How does reishiki achieve these things?

A typical reishiki ceremony:

Sensei gives the following commands:

1.       Seiretsu. The students are called to line up in grade order. This is the time when you have to address your position in the dojo and let go of external roles which become unimportant in this context.

2.       Seiza.  The students sit in a formal kneeling position. In some clubs the students may be sitting opposite the shomen or shinzen (shrine). In clubs that meet in a school gym or other temporary ‘dojo’ the students may face a symbolic shomen i.e. face a direction that sensei points to. Other clubs may miss this stage out altogether and just face sensei.

3.       Mokuso. The students close their eyes and observe a few moments of meditation. The idea of this is to let the students clear their minds of distracting (outside) thoughts and prepare for the training ahead.  See ‘Why do we…….perform mokuso’

4.       Mokuso yame. The students stop meditating and open their eyes.

The senior student (or a student chosen by sensei) will then give the commands:

a.       Shomen ni rei. The students bow to the shomen in order to remember and show respect to their founder.  In clubs where there is no longer any connection or communication with their Japanese origins this step may be omitted altogether.

b.      Sensei ni rei.  The students bow to sensei to show their respect to him/her and show that they are ready to listen and learn.

c.       Otaga ni rei. The students and sensei bow to each other in a mutual display of respect and courtesy. Remember, in martial arts bowing is about showing respect not subservience.

At this point the students may say words such as onegaishimasu or osu (note that osu is a contraction of the word onegaishimasu). This basically means "please let me train with you." It's an entreaty often used in asking the other person to teach you, and that you are ready to accept the other person's teaching.

Sensei then gives the following commands:

5.       Kiritsu. The students stand up with feet together and arms by their side.

6.       Rei. The students perform a small standing bow to end the ceremony.

The whole ceremony is then repeated at the end of the lesson with the gesture Arigatou gazaimashita which means thank you.

Though each class begins and ends with reishiki it must be remembered that good manners, courtesy and respect must permeate throughout the class. This keeps the class civilised, controlled and safe at all times and keeps big egos in check.

Do you have any particular reishiki rules or behaviours to share?

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Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Like a light switch...

I've always been fascinated by how the brain works and how we can try to get the best out of our brains, or more specifically: how we can get the best out of our minds.

In recent years science has revealed that our brains are much more pliable and adaptable than previously thought and the more understanding we have of the neurophysiology of the brain the more ways we can develop to manipulate that physiology or: train the brain.

Last week I started reading a book called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D which is based on her very successful course at Stanford University called ‘The science of willpower’. In this book she relates the biological basis of willpower to the scientifically validated methods of improving willpower – i.e. how to train the brain to have more willpower.

Last week I also watched a science program on TV by the Horizon team called ‘The Creative brain – how insight works.’ The program followed several different groups of psychologists and neuroscientists around the world who are researching into the science of creativity. The advent of MRI scanning has revolutionised the study of the active brain enabling the understanding of human behaviour in relation to creativity to make great leaps forward. The program not only revealed what is happening in the brain when we have those ‘Eureka’ moments when our brains take a big creative leap forward but also how to manipulate those processes to make those moments more likely to happen – in other words, how to train the brain to become more creative.

Training the brain to enhance the processes that naturally occur in them is something that we already do in martial arts isn’t it? I was struck by how similar some of the strategies Dr. McGonigal advocates in her book to enhance willpower are things that martial artists interested in the more esoteric aspects of their art have been doing for centuries, they just haven’t understood the scientific basis of why they work!

In the book Dr. McGonigal advocates breath control to activate the pre-frontal cortex (the seat of willpower) and enhance heart rate variability which shifts the body and brain from a state of stress to one of self-control. The breath should be slowed down to about 4 – 6 breaths per minute for a few minutes. This apparently is very effective if you do it just before you face a willpower challenge – i.e. when deciding whether to eat that cream cake or whether to go to the gym after work for instance.

In martial arts terms we use breath control during the execution of kata and other techniques. Is this to enable us to maintain a high level of self-control and focus during the technique?  After all, the self-control we need during martial arts training is also a pre-frontal cortex activity.

Dr. McGonigal also advocates meditation as a means of enhancing self-control and willpower. Seems like martial artists were first there with this one as well. Science has shown that five minutes of meditation based on breath focus reduces stress and teaches the mind how to handle both inner distractions (cravings, worries, desires) and outer temptations (sounds, sights and smells). It is a powerful brain training exercise. Studies have shown that people who learn to meditate for 10 minutes a day become more focused on their daily tasks throughout the day.

I’m only part way through this book at the moment but I’m hoping it’ll reveal even more useful insights into how the mind reacts to willpower challenges and tips on how to improve self-control. By the way Dr McGonigal lists a huge range of scientific references to support her claims. Why not read the book yourself?

Interestingly the science programme on the creative brain also talked about the pre-frontal cortex – except in the complete opposite terms. To be more creative you have to switch off the pre-frontal cortex as it exerts too much control over your thinking – it makes you analytical rather than creative and inhibits you from thinking outside the box.

Creative thinking, particularly insight, i.e. those moments when the answer to the problem just pops into your head from nowhere (seemingly) resides in the right side of the brain. In tests, when people were given clues to a puzzle they were far more likely to get a ‘Eureka’ moment with the answer if the clues were presented to the left visual field rather than the right (information from the left visual field is processed by the right side of the brain).

Furthermore, MRI scanning of the brain during problem solving has shown that insight is not an instantaneous thing. In the seconds before the answer pops into the conscious brain there is rapid firing of alpha waves in the visual cortex (temporarily shutting it down) followed by a burst of gamma waves in the right side of the brain near the temporal lobe – then the idea pops into consciousness and you experience your Eureka moment. In fact the subconscious brain has been collating information about the problem from several areas of the brain, this is why it shuts off the visual cortex to avoid distractions from the outside world and down regulates the pre-frontal cortex (to stop you from consciously controlling the process and thus slowing it down). Fascinating isn’t it?

Apparently if you are too intelligent and controlling with your thoughts i.e. over analytical about problems you tend to have more ordered pathways in the brain and are less able to think divergently about problems. Less intelligent people tend to have more scattered pathways in the brain and are better at divergent thinking and more likely to have moments of creative insights. Remember, sophisticated MRI scanning and imaging during psychological and problem solving tests has concluded these findings – don’t just take my word for it, watch the programme on BBC I-player if you can.

It appears that our brains work faster when we are not consciously controlling them. In martial arts we already intuitively know that don’t we? We know that in a fight we should let the training take over and just react – muscle memory will do the rest- right? If we over-analyse a situation and try and make lots of conscious decisions about which technique to choose we become too slow and hesitant and will probably lose the fight. We need to switch off the pre-frontal cortex in order to fight effectively.  

To illustrate that fact for a moment: in the creative brain programme they had a seriously good improvised jazz musician improvise a piece of music whilst his brain was scanned in an MRI scanner. Remember he was making this music up as he went along and it was good and it was fast. Many areas of his brain were lit up – except the pre-frontal cortex which he had almost completely switched off. His fingers just did the talking over those keys, no conscious brain allowed!

Where does all this leave us in martial arts? You need your pre-frontal cortex switched on to train so that you can stay focused, in control and build up that muscle memory (which resides in the brain remember!). However, to fight, you need to switch the pre-frontal cortex off and let the sub-conscious brain take over. Martial arts are as much about brain training as body training – this is why we ignore the more esoteric aspects of our art at our peril. It’s not enough to just learn techniques – we have to understand how our brains work and train them too.

We need to learn how to switch our pre-frontal cortex on and off, like a light switch…

References: The Willpower Instinct – how self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D

Horizon: The Creative Brain – how insight works. Available on BBC i-player. 

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Friday, 1 March 2013

One body, two minds.

We often talk about the practice of budo but what exactly is budo and what is its purpose? My current understanding of budo is this:

At the heart of budo is the premise that the biggest battle we face in our lives is not with the enemy outside but that which resides within ourselves – the ego. Through hard physical training we come to know our true selves and become more able to defeat the ego. The reduction or control of ego is essential to allow our true selves to be nurtured and developed. This developing of the true self allows us to reach our full potential in our daily lives: at work, home, relationships, friendships and other activities we are involved in.

Ego is an interesting concept; it has several definitions related to the human psyche and I think that only one of them is relevant to the subject of budo. Ego is defined as:  The self, especially as distinct from the world and other selves. Clearly budo is not about trying to lose one’s sense of self. Ego is also defined as: an appropriate pride in oneself; self-esteem. We can all agree that self-esteem is important to our sense of self-worth and happiness and an appropriate level of pride in oneself keeps us clean and sociable, provides a desire to keep healthy and gives us motivation to do things well. So budo is not about ridding ourselves of this type of ego either. Thus it must be about the third definition: An exaggerated sense of self-importance; conceit.

So, some ego is necessary for normal human functioning and good mental and physical health but a surfeit of ego tips over into self-importance, conceit and perhaps an unwarranted sense of entitlement – this is what the budo practitioner is trying to rid themselves of.  But why? What’s wrong with egotism? We need to answer this question because if you don’t see a problem with excess pride, vanity or an exaggerated sense of self-worth or entitlement then you’re not ready to take on the challenges of budo.

Excess ego damages both yourself and others. It damages others because ego is inherently selfish; the egotist puts his/her needs before others. The need to acquire wealth and status may be overwhelming and the egotist may become ready to lie, cheat or just display shear ruthlessness to get what they want (or think they deserve) in life. The egotist may neglect family and relationships in pursuit of personal goals leaving a trail of unhappiness behind him/her.  The egotist may also think nothing wrong with acquiring a surfeit of the world’s resources (property, money, land etc) without concern for how this may affect other people. In essence the egotist’s sense of entitlement can impact negatively on other people.

Ego is also damaging to the self because it limits the opportunity for real self-development – development of the true self. Ego lets the true self hide behind bluster and boasting; it stops you from learning new things because you already think you know them; it makes you compete with people in environments where you should be cooperating (e.g. work colleagues or even with your neighbours – got to have a better car on the drive than they do?) While your ego is busy controlling your behaviour your true self is just languishing in the background, unloved and un-nurtured.

How do we tell the difference between what is ego and what is truly us? Well, one tell-tale sign is the way we focus on tasks. Ego tends to be driven by outcomes – reaching the goal is more important than how we get there. You got the big car, big house, pots of money, pile of trophies or whatever it is you wanted and you didn’t really care what you had to do, or who you hurt to get it – that’s ego.

On the other hand the true self is driven by process – the need to do a good job regardless of reward. You do your job to the best of your ability because that is what you expect of yourself and that is what you contracted to do with your employer – seeing your company thrive or your clients happy with your service is its own reward. Working hard at your relationships – each partner giving selflessly to the other (and therefore each partner also receiving) builds a strong, happy environment in which both partners can thrive. Training hard in the dojo for the pleasure and challenge of getting better and better, revealing the courage, persistence, determination and focus needed to improve will lead to its own intrinsic rewards.

If you focus on the process the outcomes will reach themselves but more importantly your true self will have developed as you strive to learn the skills needed to do your job well, showed compassion, trust and integrity in your relationships and revealed the positive aspects of your character through hard physical training.

Does this mean that every man or woman who has a fast car, big house, well paid job or lots of trophies is an egotist? Of course not, many altruistic people who have worked hard to develop themselves and do an excellent job, showed honesty and integrity in all they do have been rewarded with good salaries that can buy some of the luxuries of life. Many of these people give back to society through philanthropic acts of generosity. For these people the process of how they lived and developed themselves was more important than achieving outcomes – the outcomes just followed.

Budo teaches you to focus on the process of training rather than the outcomes. Your ego wants the outcome (black belt, trophy, fame, recognition, money); your true-self wants simply to be the best it can in your chosen martial art and in every aspect of your life.  If positive outcomes follow then great but your true-self should not desire the outcome at any cost!

There isn’t room in your body for both the inflated ego and your true self – one of them has to go. Which will you choose? Are you ready for the budo challenge?

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