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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

5th Kyu Test

The day finally came.

Last night, I got to take my test for fifth kyu. You may remember that I missed this test once already because of an injury, the result being that I was still sitting at sixth kyu two-and-a-half years into my aikido journey.

It would make for good reading for me to say I was anxious, sweating bullets, shrinking under the exacting stare of my instructor, but the truth is that I was ready. I was more than ready, in fact: I had essentially been training for this short test for a year-and-a-half. The excitement, the anticipation, the apprehension, and the doubt had all come and gone long ago. It was a little anti-climactic.

It isn't much of a stretch to say that I just wanted to get it over with. I'm ready to move on in my aikido journey, to start learning the stuff that the quitters who leave after a year never get to see. Couple that with my rather mixed feelings about rank in general, and you get a test that felt not so much like an important milestone as a formality, a cutting of red tape.

After the test, I called my wife. She was hungry and my daughter was crying. There were clearly bigger things to worry about at home than whether or not Dad was a fifth kyu. I didn't even bring it up on the phone. I hurried home to them, grabbing some dinner along the way.

By the way, I passed.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Simple Gifts

A giant once lived in that body. But Matt Brady got lost because he was looking for God too high up and too far away.
- Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond, Inherit the Wind

The library is a great place to go with a baby in a stroller. There are aisles and aisles to push her around in to put her to sleep, and everyone is quiet, so she stays asleep.

I was on just such an excursion this afternoon. I swung by the martial arts section (796.81, if you were wondering) and noticed a large book called The Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition, History, Pioneers.

Now, books like this are a dime a dozen. Every library has a couple. They're big, they're usually at least 20 years old, they're festooned from beginning to end with black-and-white photographs of martial arts action, and they're usually full of generalized information from starry-eyed Westerners who grew up on kung fu films. But for whatever reason, I opened this one, and decided to see what it said about aikido.

The first sentence in the "Aikido" entry shocked me to my core:
Aikido offers four basic advantages to its practitioners: it develops rhythmic movement and physical fitness, both integral parts of self-defense training; it encourages discipline and a nonviolent attitude; it promotes strength and suppleness in the joints and limbs through twisting, bending, and stretching--movements that also free the limbs from harmful adhesions; and it increases the practitioner's awareness of posture and good body alignment, and improves reactions, perceptions, and coordination.
What? No enlightenment? No invincible defense against weapons or multiple attackers?  No harmony with all living things? No mystical powers?

This book, this book I had scoffed at and dismissed as ignorant drivel only moments before, had just spelled out what I look for in aikido better than most aikido instructors I've met. Frankly, I've never seen a better summary of the benefits of aikido training.

There are many, though, who would not be satisfied by this summary.

When I posted my entry "Ki to the Highway" on AikiWeb this summer, I was astonished to get a few responses from aikidoists who were genuinely offended by the assertion that aikido did not give them the power to defy or transcend the laws of physics. Likewise, browse any aikido message board and you'll find several aikidoists willing to defend to the death the assertion that kata-style aikido training is every bit as practical for learning street defense as krav maga, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or mixed martial arts training, or perhaps even more so.

At the root of this kind of willful ignorance, I think, is a dissatisfaction with the mundane. To a man who grew up watching movies and reading books about martial artists who perform superhuman feats, conquer evil forces, and achieve near-clairvoyant states of mind, the prospect of simply training for health and happiness does seem a little underwhelming.

But health and happiness are not small things. And many, many people miss out on health and happiness reaching for other things they consider greater, more noble, or more important.

I, for one, do not intend to make this mistake. Physical fitness, discipline and attitude, strength and suppleness, posture and body alignment, reactions, perceptions, and coordination: I find more than enough here to spend a lifetime training for.

Monday, August 27, 2012

About a Girl

When a lazy slob takes a good steady job
And he smells from Vitalis and Barbasol
Call it dumb, call it clever
Ah, but you can get odds forever
That the guy's only doing it for some doll
Frank Loesser, "Guys and Dolls", from the musical of the same name

It's a strange feeling loving someone the first moment you see her.

There are books and songs full of love at first sight, something I've always considered silly. I've always thought that real love, like the love I have for my wife, is something that is built over time.

To be sure, there were a few girls who made my knees weak in high school, but I wasn't ready to spend every waking moment with them, alter the course of my life for them, even die for them.

At first sight, I was entirely ready to do all those things for my daughter. It was enough to make all of those swelling music moments in romantic movies seem a little less ridiculous.

In that instant, I wanted to be for her what I had never been for myself: I wanted to be strong, brave, organized, decisive, and resolute. My daughter, as Jack Nicholson famously said of Helen Hunt, made me want to be a better man.

The process of becoming a better man (as vague and amorphous a goal as there ever was), for me, will prominently feature the dojo. I don't, as some romantics do, believe my martial arts regimen amounts to spiritual or moral training--I've touched on that before--but I do think, as I wrote last month, that what we learn from training can be a key ingredient of the model man.

My daughter deserves someone with the courage to bow and come back for more after being thrown across the room. She deserves someone with the strength to return that throw in kind. She deserves someone with the grace to accept the pain of a wrist lock with a smile. She deserves someone with the resolve to make a twentieth attempt at a technique after messing up the first nineteen.

Perhaps in the dojo I can find that man, or at least a little piece of him. It's something I've always wanted, but never so badly as I do now.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Might Isn't Right, But Strong Isn't Wrong

I'm going to start this post with two things every aikidoist already knows:

  1. The proper execution of an aikido technique generally does not require a great deal of strength on the part of the performer of the technique (nage).
  2. An aikido technique executed properly can overcome the resistance of a stronger opponent (uke).
These two things lead many aikido instructors to conclude, I think correctly, that a good aikidoist need not be exceptionally strong or muscular. But there are others who go further, asserting that strength training is somehow detrimental to aikido, reducing our flexibility and keeping us from grasping the essence of aikido's physics by allowing us to rely on our strength. This kind of thinking has always seemed a little counter-intuitive to me.

I was inspired to address this subject by a recent Martial Arts Planet thread started by an aikidoist who was considering adding other martial arts and activities to his athletic regimen. He worried that the building up of strength necessary for these other activities would make him "stiff" and make him "force [his] aikido to work". This reminded me of a time at my former club when one of my training partners, an avid weightlifter, was encouraged by an instructor to stop lifting for the sake of his aikido (I should note that this particular instructor did not speak for the entire club--some of the other instructors lift weights themselves).

I'm no expert on physical fitness or aikido, so readers should take what I think with a grain of salt, but this post would be incomplete if I didn't briefly address my own feelings on the subject before moving on. It is my blog, after all. 

I wrote once before that when I visit a club, I like to see at least a few students who I'm pretty sure could beat me up. Strength is definitely an ingredient in that recipe. What's more, I think a practitioner of any art or craft has a responsibility to take care of his tools. An aikidoist's primary tool is his body, so I think he ought to be making some effort to keep himself physically fit. Strength, of course, is an important element of physical fitness.

I can certainly understand the fear of reliance on strength in our technique, but it seems to me that this can be avoided by testing our skills against opponents stronger than ourselves (this is difficult, of course, for the strongest person in the dojo, but that problem would exist anyway--if everyone lifts or if no one does, there will always be a strongest person).

Now onto people who know what they're talking about. During the formative years of the internet, dancer and martial artist Bradford Appleton painstakingly researched and then wrote what was to be a comprehensive online guide to stretching and flexibility. The document is now an internet staple which can be found all over; I found it here on the website for MIT's taekwondo club.

Appleton's stance on the matter of strength versus flexibility is quite clear:
Strength training and flexibility training should go hand in hand. It is a common misconception that there must always be a trade-off between flexibility and strength. Obviously, if you neglect flexibility training altogether in order to train for strength then you are certainly sacrificing flexibility (and vice versa). However, performing exercises for both strength and flexibility need not sacrifice either one. As a matter of fact, flexibility training and strength training can actually enhance one another.
It would appear, then, that strength training, undertaken sensibly and responsibly, is no danger to our flexibility. But what about our fear that added strength will undermine our technique?

In answer to that concern, I direct you to aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba:

O Sensei had some real guns, even in his later years. This is not a picture, I think, of a man who considers strength an irrelevancy, let alone an obstacle to his training.

Based on all the above, I humbly submit that aikidoists who wish to build up their strength should do so with a clear conscience. It is certainly true that aikido is ultimately a search for something greater than strength, but it appears, at least, that strength training will do our skills no harm, and it's certainly good for us.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go do some push-ups.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Facebook Announcement

Just a quick note: The Young Grasshopper is now on Facebook.

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Thanks for reading!


"The Most Interesting Man in the World"
I have just finished reading Brad Miner's The Compleat Gentleman.

The book calls itself "The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry", and attempts to assemble a general model of the perfect chivalrous man. The Compleat Gentleman, says Miner, is sophisticated and brave, personifying the virtues of the Warrior, the Lover, and the Monk, and is rich in sprezzatura, that is, gentlemanly grace and restraint.

On the whole, I found the book to be extensively flawed. For all Miner's lip-service to an apolitical ideal, his idea of chivalry is inextricably bound up with his strongly conservative political views. Miner is adamant that a gentleman's honor is worth fighting and dying for, but he never bothers to explain what honor means to him. Worst of all, while the book makes clear that the modern gentleman "has a newer and more realistic view of women" than his historical predecessors, Miner never once considers the possibility that a woman might fulfill his ideals as well as a man.

All that said, the book did give me a few things to think about.

Miner is a student of Goju Ryu karate, and what he writes about karate in his book leads me to believe that he is, like me, a relative newcomer who didn't begin his martial arts journey until adulthood. Nonetheless, the martial arts are important to his model of the perfect gentleman:
Life is a martial art. It is anyway if you do it right. As the Stoics of ancient Rome used to say: Vivere militare! How can our modern knight protect the innocent and punish the guilty unless, along with his courage and honor, he has prowess?
Let's put aside for now the question of whose duty it really is to "punish the guilty", and also the question of whether or not Miner's karate or my aikido amount to real prowess. What interests me most is Miner's idea that prowess is a key ingredient of the true gentleman.

Does a gentleman need martial training? And if he does, does our martial training, therefore, bring us closer to being gentlemen?

Many of us like to think so. We like stories of the Celtic warrior-poet, the samurai philosopher, the rapier-wielding Renaissance man, and (if we are taekwondo players) the ancient Korean hwarang youth, each a sophisticated man educated in the various arts of peace but trained and ready for combat.

I'm a musician--a damn good one if I do say so myself--so I like to think I have the "poet" half of the warrior-poet equation down pretty well already. With some more martial arts training, could I join the ranks of history's great gentlemen?

I am reminded of the popular series of Dos Equis beer commercials featuring "The Most Interesting Man in the World". The character would perhaps not satisfy all of Miner's gentlemanly criteria (not enough of a monk, I think), but he does in many ways embody the popular ideal of the gentleman, that is, a man who is sophisticated and cool without being weak. He rescues trapped animals, he woos women, and he plays at politics, but he is equally at home arm-wrestling or wielding a shinai in a kendo match. The commercials' narrator says of him, "He could disarm you with his looks... or his hands, either way," and, "He's a lover, not a fighter, but he's also a fighter, so don't get any ideas."

Be honest: what guy doesn't want to be that guy?

Much as I often criticize romanticism in the martial arts, I must confess this image appeals to me a great deal. I didn't start my martial arts training with the single-minded goal of becoming a great martial arts master; I wanted to add one more piece to myself, a piece that would make me a more complete human being, a more "interesting" man.

I have written before on how I feel my training has prepared me to face life's challenges with a little more grace. And, stylized as my aikido may be, I suspect I am a little readier for a physical confrontation than I was before, too. Both of these, Miner and the Most Interesting Man in the World seem to agree, are key ingredients of the gentleman. Is it such a bad thing, then, to pursue this romantic ideal in the dojo? I am starting to think not.

Of course, we must pursue this ideal outside the dojo, too. Miner's Compleat Gentleman and the Most Interesting Man in the World are not just fighters. They are jacks-of-all-trades, well-traveled and broadly educated.

I keep saying that I want to make a deeper study of Buddhism, that I want to learn to speak Spanish, that I want to improve my cooking, and that I want to be more diligent in the gym. If I am to be the perfect gentleman, I'm going to need all these things, and I'm going to need to fit them in around working, being a husband, and raising a daughter. It's not for no reason that Don Quixote calls it "the impossible dream".

But even if it is impossible (and, skeptic that I am, I'm pretty sure it is), I think it might be a worthwhile pursuit. And I think my time in the dojo can help.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ki to the Highway

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
- Confucius, Analects

A few days ago, someone on Facebook's Aikido group had the gall to make a post saying that ki power does not exist. The responses that followed this assertion were condescending and not particularly friendly. I'll post the first three here: 
  • "Then why are you here?" (3 Likes)
  • "If you do not believe in the existence of ki power, you have not understood the real power of aikido... all techniques depend on ki power: without that, there is only physical strength." (5 Likes)
  • "ki is everywhere, a vital force; the spirit of aikido; if you don't trust in this, you're lost" (1 Like)

I decided not to come to this guy's defense because I think he was being unnecessarily confrontational. But my opinion on this matter is a very strong one: there is no such thing as ki, and we in the martial arts should stop using the word ki (and its Chinese counterpart, chi) altogether.

There, I said it. Everyone take a breath.

Now I'll move on.

There are a lot of problems with the concept of ki, the foremost being that no two people can agree on what ki actually is. In my few short years in aikido, I've heard more definitions of ki than I could possibly count, ranging from things as mundane as "momentum" and "intention" to such wild ideas as "spiritual energy" and "the power of the universe". There are, in short, as many definitions of ki as there are people talking about it.

Some people embrace this amorphousness, deciding that ki is like God or the Dao: something that defies definition and can only be experienced for oneself. The problem with this is that ki, unlike God or the Dao, is supposed to be something we can cultivate and manipulate to produce measurable effects in the physical world (I suppose there are a few, like Pat Robertson, who believe they can do the same with God, but let's not get into that here).  The moment we start dealing with clearly-defined physical realities, we give up the luxury of  being able to chalk things up to mysterious, inexplicable forces. If something works in a concrete, measurable way, we ought to be able to explain it in a concrete, measurable way.

And by the way, we can explain it in a concrete, measurable way.

I have worked with some amazing people during my time in aikido and they have shown me some amazing things. But I've never seen any of them, including even the great Hiroshi Ikeda, do something that couldn't be explained by physics. No doubt, things like the "unbendable arm" must have looked supernatural to people who lacked a modern understanding of biomechanics, but we know better now. The second Facebook comment above notwithstanding, we no longer need ki to explain how good technique can overcome sheer physical strength. Royce Gracie proved that many times over in the early days of the UFC.

So, nobody can agree on what ki is and there is nothing in the martial arts that requires ki as an explanation. That ought to be evidence enough that ki is nonsense. But there is something much worse than nonsense.

Those of you who read my April post "We're the Problem" will remember a video of Jim Green, a karate instructor who is in the business of teaching children to take falls when he throws his ki at them. No doubt some see this as harmless silliness and consider confronting it with the truth more trouble than it's worth. But consider the case of Yanagi Ryuken.

Ryuken's name has become synonymous in the martial arts community with the worst martial arts delusions. His story was introduced to me by neuroscientist and secularist writer Sam Harris, whose recent interest in self-defense and Brazilian jiu-jitsu has resulted in some very interesting writing on the martial arts. Harris, as one might expect, is keenly interested in the debunking of unscientific martial arts myths. He presentes Ryuken as an example of what happens when masters and their methods go untested and unquestioned.

Ryuken is a master of no-touch throws; rather than striking or grabbing his opponents, he repels them with his ki. Here's a video of him in action with some of his students.

And here's a video of what happened when he challenged a martial artist from another school.

The website where I found this video said that Ryuken ended up with several broken teeth and cuts all over his mouth and nose. Delusion, in the case of the martial arts, isn't just funny; it's sometimes very dangerous.

None of what I've written so far addresses the more pragmatic users of the word ki: the ones who believe (correctly, I think) that what used to be called ki is in fact a combination of breathing, biomechanics, and visualization, and who assert (incorrectly, I think) that there's nothing wrong with continuing to use the word so long as we understand that there's nothing mystical or supernatural about it. I used to be in this crowd myself, but I think this stance was a bit hypocritical of me.

I am a real jerk about words. When we start deciding that words can mean whatever we want them to mean, words begin to lose their meaning altogether. We already have words for breathing, biomechanics, and visualization. Adding ki to that mix only obfuscates things.

For instance, when an instructor tells me to extend my ki outward as I throw, what he means is that if I think outward rather than downward my muscles will follow suit and my throw will go where it is supposed to go. He is telling me to visualize. I got similar advice from my singing coach in college, and he didn't need any mysterious foreign words for it. The best aikido instructors I've ever had just skip the ki middleman and say, "Think out, not down." It gets the same results and makes a lot more sense to most of us.

So to recap:

  • There is no agreed-upon definition of ki.
  • None of the martial arts phenomena attributed to ki need more explaining than can be provided by simple physics.
  • Belief in ki leads some people into ridiculous and dangerous delusions.
  • Use of the word ki complicates and obfuscates things that could be better explained with simple English (or German, or Portuguese, or Hindi, or whatever).
In closing, I must, as always,  remind people that I'm no authority on anything. I am not even three years into my martial arts journey, and have no business telling a sandan how to run her class. She can use whatever words she wants. But I, for the reasons above, will never use the word ki in reference to any part of my martial arts training, and will have a little difficulty taking those people seriously who do.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Still Small Voice

I have a little, nagging voice inside my head. Its name is Aikido. I don't always hear it; it's picky about where and when to speak up. It's never very loud, either. But there's no denying it's there, and the more I train the more often I hear it.

Usually the first time I hear Aikido during the day is in the shower. The alarm has roused me from bed, I've fed the cat, and I stumble, cold and groggy, into the bathtub. As the hot water starts to come down, I lean lazily to one side, unhappy to be standing up and eager to squeeze as much of me as I can into the warm spray.

Then it starts. Straighten up, says Aikido quietly. Distribute your weight evenly between your feet.

I comply. I spread my feet to shoulders' width. My hips level and my shoulders relax. A pain in my knee and calf that I hadn't even noticed before starts to subside. I feel a little more stable, a little stronger, and a little more ready to face 17 hours of being awake.

After my shower, I dress, make breakfast, and pack lunch. As I'm heading out of the apartment building toward my car, I sometimes hear Aikido again. You're turning out your right foot when you walk, says Aikido. Fix it.

Again, I submit. I straighten out my right foot. Walking is suddenly easier on my left leg and my right knee is at a much more comfortable angle. I hadn't noticed before that moment how much effort I had been wasting on an inefficient gait, but Aikido had noticed. 

One morning last month at work, a particularly difficult autistic middle school student had to be restrained for an unusually long time. They usually call me for this kind of duty with this particular student; he and I have something of a rapport and the staff member assigned to him is too small to hold him for long when he gets determined.

And he does get determined. This student, when upset, can go to a place beyond reason and beyond verbal communication. When that happens, there is nothing to be said, and the only thing to do is hold on and try to prevent him from hurting himself or anyone else. This time, he swung, he kicked, he bit, and when all those failed him, he tried to hit his head on the hard floor just to spite us.

I'm trained in safe (or at least as safe as possible) ways to restrain violent kids. I had this student in an approved hold, but he's big enough that I was still struggling to keep him still. I was holding as tightly as I could, and that kept him from hitting or kicking me, but it didn't keep his thrashing from threatening to pull me off-balance.

Into this chaos came the voice of Aikido. You're muscling, Aikido said. Relax. Drop your shoulders. Think down into the floor. Hold him with your center of gravity, not your arms. Now breathe.

Sweating and with a screaming adolescent in my arms, I followed each command dutifully. As my shoulders rolled back and my grip relaxed, the student found less to struggle against. As my weight sank, I felt my legs and core take over much of the work I'd been doing with my tired arms. I inhaled deeply through my nose and exhaled slowly through my mouth. I even allowed myself the luxury of closing my eyes for a moment. Suddenly, everything had become easier.

There is a lot of talk in aikido circles about how what we learn in aikido can be applied "off the mat". Much of this is hippie stuff about loving all living things and becoming one with the universe. Assuming these goals are even possible, I think the best place to pursue them is in a church and not a dojo. I've never met an aikido instructor with credentials as any kind of spiritual adviser.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe aikido is realistic combat training, and that they're going to take their aikido out to "the street" and use their shihonages on 300-pound thugs with guns and knives. Personally, if I really wanted to learn to fight, I'd find something other than stylized techniques derived from feudal-era Japanese fencing. I have trained with only one aikido instructor who has what I would call real combat experience (he's a former Army Ranger), and he had no such illusions about aikido.

In between both these extremes, I think, there are benefits of aikido that are very, very real. Good, hard aikido training will make us stronger, fitter, and more flexible. It will teach us perseverance and patience. And the physics of aikido are the physics of life: the biomechanical lessons we learn out on the mat can be applied to many tasks that require our strength and balance.

Perhaps these benefits are not exclusive to aikido. Perhaps we can find them in all martial arts, including some whose techniques are better suited to real combat. To be honest, I don't know enough to be sure.

But I do know that there is a little voice in my head telling me some very useful things, and that this voice was born in the dojo.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Old Flame

We drank a toast to innocence, we drank a toast to now
And tried to reach beyond the emptiness but neither one knew how
We drank a toast to innocence, we drank a toast to time
Reliving in our eloquence, another 'auld lang syne' 

The beer was empty and our tongues were tired 
And running out of things to say
She gave a kiss to me as I got out and I watched her drive away
Just for a moment I was back at school
And felt that old familiar pain
And as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned in to rain...
 - Dan Fogelberg, "Same Auld Lang Syne"  

Have you ever hung out with an ex? Bad memories, some people say, make this a difficult undertaking.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, though, the good memories are much worse. The hardest thing about being around someone you used to be in a relationship with isn't remembering why you broke up; it's remembering why you were together and knowing that you'll never have that again.

The summer after my first year of college, I went out for an afternoon with my old high school girlfriend (the Ohio Renaissance Festival--yes, I'm that guy and we were that couple). We were still friends and we were still into a lot of the same things, and it was nice to have someone back home I could hang out with. It was just a little bit awkward, though, catching glimpses of something that used to be and would never be again.

It's not that I was lonely, or that I pined for the old days. In fact, I was in a wonderful new relationship in college with the woman who would eventually become my wife. I would never have traded that for a chance to go back to high school. But that didn't stop the moment from being a little strange and bittersweet.

I found myself having similar feelings last week as I attended the rank testing at my old club. It was my first time there in almost three months. I would have been testing that night myself had I not been sidelined by an injury early in February. As it is, I'm now at a new club for many different reasons, the most pressing of which is impending changes to my schedule. I'm not dissatisfied with the new club, and I still have reservations about the old one, but that didn't stop the dojo from feeling like home.

To kneel beside my friends again, to take a few rolls on the familiar softness of that mat again, and to hear the kind voice of my former head instructor again were all wonderful--and a little bit sad. For all that I've complained on this blog, this club is family. It got me started in the martial arts, it introduced me to a lot of friends, and it taught me many lessons that will stay with me for a long time.

During the tests themselves, I had the luxury of losing myself in the aikido (the one exception was the test I would have taken, featuring the friend who would have been my testing partner--that one stung a little). I watched, silently analyzing my friends' technique, or walking through the techniques myself in my mind. I caught myself breathing in rhythm with the kokyu nages and moving my hands along with ikkyos.

After the testing was over, we all went out for drinks. Everyone wanted updates on the status of my pregnant wife, my job, and my music (respectively: well, going to hell, and should be picking up soon). I hadn't been gone long enough yet to keep me from fitting right in. We talked about aikido, about beer, about movies, about anything and everything.

The head instructor made sure to tell me they'll always have a place for me if I want to visit. I'm sure I will. Perhaps some morning classes over the summer after the school year is over. And I'd like them all to meet my daughter after she's born. I'm looking forward to it, but the thought of visiting the place that's been like home for the last couple years is a strange one.

I left the bar a little earlier than I would have liked. I had to work in the morning, and my wife was waiting for me at home. It had been a good night. By the end of the evening, I was in full club-member mode, and my goodbye was the brief goodbye of someone who would be back for the Thursday night class.

But, of course, I wouldn't be.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Best Way

I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, "But, sir, aren't we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?" He replied with total gravity--he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar--"Yes, but in England it's true." To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite.
- C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Whether the matter in question be religion, music, or the martial arts, I've never felt the need to assert that my way is the best way or the only way. Protestant Christianity, acoustic singer-songwriter music, and aikido, respectively, are all paths that I have stumbled upon, more by chance than by choice. Were I to take too much pride in the perceived relative merits of a fate that chose me far more than I chose it, I fear I'd become like the above patriot, boasting as if he'd chosen to be born English.

There are those, though, who'd have me do exactly that.

I was urged, even in the tolerant United Methodist denomination in which I grew up, to "save" people of other creeds from sin and hell by sharing my truer and more correct beliefs with them. I have been told by fellow musicians and music fans that my kind of music is "real" music, and that metal, rap, and electronic pop are "just noise". And from my first day in the dojo, I've had instructors telling me that aikido is something deeper, more sophisticated, and more moral than all other martial arts.

To be sure, on the spectrum of ignorant conviction Lewis lays out for us above, these particular aikido instructors have been much closer to the "loveable old ass" end than the "villain" end. My respect and love for them are not in question. But I still think they're wrong.

Aikidoka, tell me if you've heard these before:

  • Aikido is superior to other martial arts because it values technique over strength, so you don't have to be a big, strong guy to do it.
  • Aikido is superior to other martial arts because it teaches a way of life and not just a set of physical skills.
  • Aikido is superior to other martial arts because it doesn't dilute itself with sport competition.
  • Aikido is superior to other martial arts because O Sensei incorporated the best of many different martial arts into one art.

When I hear people claiming that aikido is the way, they usually support their position by making one of these four claims. There is much truth in all of these claims, but as assertions of disciplinary uniqueness or superiority, they all come up short.

All martial arts, not just aikido, aspire to be methods by which a smaller, weaker person can defeat a bigger, stronger one. And some, like Royce Gracie's jiu-jitsu, have proven themselves quite convincingly.  The "way of life" claim has never impressed me, and at any rate aikido is hardly the only art making it (check Google if you don't believe me). Absence of competition is not exclusive to aikido, and I find the argument that competition is a valuable tool a compelling one (Rob Redmond, for instance, makes it here). Finally, many arts, including Shorinji kenpo and jeet kune do, can make equally valid claims to being a brilliant master's synthesis of multiple martial arts.

Does this mean that aikido isn't unique or special? Of course not. It probably does mean, though, that aikidoka have very little cause to be looking down their noses at anyone.

What's more, I suspect most aikidoka are like me: rather than exhaustively researching every martial art available to them and making educated decisions about their relative merits, they got lucky and happened upon something that was affordable and convenient and looked fun and interesting. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this method, but it's not a method that puts one in a position to make claims about the superiority of a particular discipline.

To return to the other examples I used earlier, my music and religion came to me much the same way. I didn't choose to be born and raised in the United Methodist Church, and the acoustic guitar landed in my lap during an elective class my senior year of high school. Does that mean these things aren't vital and meaningful parts of my life? Of course not. But it does mean that I don't really have a leg to stand on if I start to claim my religion or my music are the best in a world full of options. Maybe I might claim that they are the best for me, but even then I'm not saying anything that does me any good in an appeal to a universal or objective standard.

One more thing: who cares?

Who cares which martial art (or religion, or music style) is the best? Why can't we just find something that works for us and let it work? Why do we need to be better than anyone else? It's a question that returns to my mind whenever I am foolish enough to read YouTube comments.

To be sure, there are a select few who genuinely need the most effective combat skills they can find, and for them the comparative efficacy of different martial arts is a valid concern. But I'm certainly not one of those people, and neither are most aikidoka, or even most martial artists.

Most of us, then, have no authority to declare our way better than all the others, and, moreover, no reason to. Rather than trying to prove how much better we are than everyone else--something we are entirely unequipped to do anyway--why don't we all just get back to training?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Back on the Horse

Last Monday, I returned to aikido after more than two months off with a shoulder injury.

It was with a strange mix of relief and fear that I first bowed and stepped onto the mat: relief because I so missed the workout I get from training, and fear for two reasons. First, as much as my shoulder has healed, I couldn't be sure how well it would hold up until I got myself out on the mat. Second, I was joining a new club, and the happy familiarity of aikido was diluted by the unfamiliarity of a new facility, new instructors, and new partners.

The switch to the new club had been a long time coming. I've aired my gripes about the old club (simply called "the dojo" in most posts) many, many, many, many times before, but what really forced my hand was a changing schedule. I've started playing with a band that meets on the same night as one of the dojo's two weeknight classes, and when my daughter (my daughter!) is born, the compromises I'll have to make with my wife's schedule will complicate things even further. I still have many friends at the dojo, but the combination of aforementioned issues and schedule conflict eventually became insurmountable.

Fortunately, there is another aikido club barely a mile from the dojo, with the same monthly rates and a schedule more compatible with my own. It's new: the facilities are still a work in progress, the instructors don't seem to be quite on the same page yet, and the students' varying aikido backgrounds seem to create a little confusion. But the head instructor is impeccably qualified and fun to work with, and there is a happy vibe in classes apparently unmarred by cliques and politics.

One of the more senior students is apparently also a yoga instructor, and she led the warm-ups. This was my first real experience with yoga, and I confess it was more strenuous than I expected. It was a great warm-up, especially helpful to my out-of-shape body. But I shudder to think what I must have looked like attempting it.

We spent most of technique time working on variations on kaiten nage. It's not one of my best techniques, requiring smooth footwork through broad, sweeping movements and more up-and-down than feels natural with my lanky frame. The roll out of kaiten nage covers a lot of ground, too. A bigger mat space is in the works at the new club, but for now throws like that require a lot of extra awareness on the part of uke. In that cramped space, I could have easily hit the wall or another student many times over if I hadn't been paying attention.

The last technique was a rather exciting henka waza shoulder lock. I had to be careful with my injured shoulder, but my partner and I came to an understanding. With a little compromise on both our parts, I managed not to re-injure my shoulder and he managed not to be completely bored.

We finished with some breathing exercises from the seiza position. It had been fully two months since I'd knelt on the floor like that, and my ankles were none too happy about starting again. It will suffice to say that the breathing exercises were not nearly as relaxing for me as they were intended to be this time. After a few words from the instructor--during which I happily sat cross-legged--we all bowed out and thanked each other.

I bowed to the kamiza as I stepped off the mat and took a long, frustrated breath. My ukemi had been clunky. My techniques had been stiff. My footwork had been sloppy. My body had been totally unprepared to be thrown (quite literally) back into aikido.

My shoulder throbbed. My hands and forearms were irritated from sliding on the rough makeshift mat. My heel was bleeding from where I'd accidentally gashed it with my own toenail. My whole body was sore from stretching in ways it hadn't stretched in months. And I was sweating from head to toe.

It was wonderful.

Monday, April 16, 2012

We're the Problem

Who's the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?
- Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

Apparently this happened a couple years ago, but I was only alerted to it recently by this thread on Martial Arts Planet. Famous (or infamous) "ninjutsu masters" Ashida Kim and Frank Dux are now inductees into the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame. I don't know how legitimate or prestigious the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame is, so I don't know if this is a great honor or just an excuse to throw a party. I do know, however, that any "hall of fame" that includes Kim and Dux is inviting some pretty big questions about its selection process.

I am, as I keep saying, only a beginner myself, so I can't make any criticism of these two men solely on my own meager authority. But the good folks at have taken Kim and Dux apart quite handily: here and here, respectively. At the very least, these two have extremely questionable credentials and are propagating a movies-and-comic-books perception of the martial arts. Worse, the information presented by Bullshido makes a strong case for outright lies and fraud.

And yet, both these men are receiving honors like induction into the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame. Both are successful instructors. Kim has made a living for decades writing ninjutsu books. Dux has even been the subject of a major motion picture starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

If the evidence against these two is so strong and so available, how have they become so successful? Why have people been so willing to give their money and their respect to two men who can be easily discredited with a simple internet search? Back in the Eighties when they were first cashing in on the ninja craze, perhaps a lack of information might have been blamed, but we've had Google for more than a decade now. And even without it, shouldn't reasonable adults be skeptical of claims to have trained under secret masters or won secret tournaments that no one else has ever heard of?

Before I go too far, let me make clear that the purpose of this piece is not to discredit Ashida Kim or Frank Dux. If a few people, after reading this piece, are inspired to learn the truth about these two for themselves, so much the better. But Kim, Dux, and many others like them are just symptoms, not the disease. Here, they only serve as a starting point for a discussion of something much bigger than them. I hate the players far, far less than I hate the game.

Snake oil salesmen, as some savvy readers are likely already thinking to themselves, are hardly unique to the martial arts. Every field has its share of charlatans and underqualified hacks looking for an easy dollar. But in the martial arts, the easy dollars seem especially easy to come by. What makes the martial arts exceptional is not an abundance of snake oil salesmen, but an abundance of eager snake oil consumers.

There are plenty of examples right here in the Milwaukee area (my little blog can't do much harm to Kim and Dux, but I won't be naming these names). I could direct you to a popular taekwondo club in a southern suburb of Milwaukee run by a "master" whose fifth dan in taekwondo comes from an organization that doesn't exist. It took me ten seconds on Google to find this out; dozens, perhaps hundreds, of students are willing to pay this man up to $160 a month for training but couldn't be bothered to take those ten seconds.

I could direct you to a kenpo instructor on the south side of Milwaukee who was kicked out of the organization that oversees his tradition and stripped of his rank by its board of masters. This information is supplied helpfully in the Yahoo! Local reviews of his club. He continues to make a living as a teacher of said tradition, however, and his club was even recently featured on the local news.

I could direct you to a martial arts club in the northwest part of Milwaukee that is part of a successful nationwide chain. The "grandmaster" who founded that chain has been fined for consumer fraud, has spent five years in prison for conspiracy to commit tax fraud, and claims to have won a championship tournament that does not exist. His clubs have also been widely accused of cult-like behavior by the media. All this information is readily available on Wikipedia.

Note the commonalities here: (1) they're all being kept in business by many paying customers, and (2) very damning information about all of them is only a click away on some of the most popular search sites on the internet. This is not a case of secretive businessmen protecting their livelihoods by keeping their shady practices under wraps; their secrets are out for anyone who bothers to look. But people, even people smart enough to accumulate a lot of money for themselves, aren't looking. Why not?

I think the answer lies in the popular perception of the martial arts as something esoteric and inscrutable. People assume that they can't understand the mysteries of the martial arts on their own, and so put their trust in anything they see in movies or hear from someone in a fancy costume. The sport of mixed martial arts is slowly chipping away at this perception, but not quickly enough for my tastes.

For example, Florida judge John Hurley recently declared from the bench that the hands and feet of anyone with a black belt in karate should be legally considered deadly weapons. That's right, moms, your 12-year-old who's put in three-and-a-half years at Master Bob's Karate in the strip mall is now a deadly weapon.

This kind of ignorance boggles the mind. John Hurley is no one's fool. Besides being a former attorney with a law degree, he's also a former Navy intelligence officer. He wasn't born yesterday. Why is he willing to accept such a fanciful, romanticized understanding of the martial arts without question, even when his understanding of the martial arts is about to be a focal point of a ruling? I think he, like so many others, has never considered the possibility that a deeper understanding is available to a layman like himself.

The legal implications of this kind of misconception are staggering, but that's not the worst of it. Meet Jim Green:
Yes, that's a child Green is teaching to take falls from imaginary forces. It should go without saying that I find this despicable and dangerous.

Personally, I don't care whether or not Green honestly believes his karate gives him telekinetic powers. What really frightens me is that parents (no few of them, judging from the kids sitting along the edge of the mat) were happy to entrust their children to a man who wants to use them as props in his magic tricks. They were undeterred by their knowledge of basic physics and apparently unwilling to to seek out a second opinion before investing their money and their offspring.

I've never encountered anything quite this outlandish in my own aikido (though examples of such things in aikido can certainly be found--a quick look through YouTube turns up at least two telekinetic aikido masters), but I have had instructors try to teach me how to throw opponents with "spiritual energy" and try to demonstrate how they can increase the pressure their body weight puts on the mat through manipulation of ki. In cases like this, I nodded and smiled politely, but my common sense was unshaken (it is worth noting that I no longer train at the club where these instructors teach).

I don't think this shows exceptional willpower or wisdom on my part. What makes me different from the willing victims I've profiled in this piece is my confidence (the result of reading I did on the subject before I started training) that nothing in the martial arts is too mysterious or magical for my uninitiated mind to comprehend.

Such confidence is not hard to come by and does not require martial arts experience. We have the internet. We have libraries. We have televised mixed martial arts competitions with experienced commentators who get paid to explain how techniques work. In today's world, there are simply no excuses left for being duped into martial arts nonsense. We have every defense we need right at our fingertips.

Martial artists like myself love to complain about charlatans who stain the reputation of the martial arts. I think it's important, though, to remember that people like Kim, Dux, and Green aren't really the problem: we are. We're the ones begging, and even paying, for the opportunity to be fooled. Others may be telling the lies, but the lies need us to feed them.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What I Like

I have a former instructor (the friend I mentioned here) who has said to me multiple times, "Once you've seen good aikido, you know bad aikido." He says this to me whenever I say that, because I'm still a relative beginner, I have no business judging instructors. Despite his encouragement, I'm still not convinced I have any business deciding whose martial art is good or bad; those whom I might potentially judge still have every right, I think, to tell me I have no idea what I'm talking about.

That said, the more I train and the more I talk to experienced martial artists, the more confidence I have in deciding what I like. This confidence is what fueled the decisions I started to make in "Aikido for Me" and continue to make as I explore new places to train.

I recently visited a school of Wing Chun kung fu and saw lots of things I like. Does an abundance of things I like make an objectively good club? I, arrogantly, like to think so, but I'm not going to make any such claim here. What I am going to do is make some observations of things that I like, using this club as an example, and try to give readers an idea of what I'm looking for when I visit a martial arts club. You can decide for yourselves whether or not you agree.

I like friendly instructors. A surefire way to scare me off is to begin our relationship by either ignoring me or lecturing me on how serious/important/powerful/difficult your martial art is. I wrote about a Shotokan Karate instructor like this last summer. A good instructor, I think, makes an effort to be someone people enjoy training with.

The instructor at this Wing Chun club was always smiling. He was happy to talk with me when he wasn't too busy with his students, and when he was with his students he was not above joking with them like the fellow adults they are. There are those who believe that this kind of attitude results in wasted time and half-hearted training, but I didn't see any of that at this club.

I like students who look like they're having a good time. There are a few things in my life worth getting really serious about, like my family and my job. The martial arts have definitely made me a healthier and happier person, but they're just not in the family/job category of importance. I have very little patience for those who treat the martial arts as something too serious or too sacred to be merely enjoyed. There are very few of us who really need advanced unarmed combat skills, and those of us who need exercise have many cheaper and more efficient options than martial arts training. If there is no enjoyment, there is no reason to train at all.

The students at this Wing Chun club were obviously enjoying the process of learning their art. They smiled when they discovered new things, they laughed at their own mistakes, and they treated each other like friends rather than animated training dummies. Apparently, there are people who have a problem with this, but I can't imagine why.

I like seeing some students who look like they could beat me up. At this Wing Chun club, I saw a few guys that I definitely wouldn't want to mess with. I don't necessarily believe I'll ever be one of those guys, but I do like to think that my training is the kind of training that those guys find challenging and interesting.

My own discipline of aikido has a reputation for being the martial arts refuge of the weak, the old, and the out-of-shape. It's not entirely true, but it's truer than I'm happy to admit. One of several reasons I'm looking for an alternative to my current aikido club is that I'm tired of training with people who would have a hard time with a few jumping jacks, let alone a live application of martial arts techniques.

That's not to say that instructors who can no longer practice everything they preach are of no value; in fact, they are often great instructors (anyone who has trained with the great Hiroshi Ikeda can back me up on this). No one expects Doc Rivers to be able to get back out on the floor and guard Chris Paul. But in my day-to-day training, I want to work with people who can push my body to its limits. It's one of the reasons I started training in the first place.

I like honesty in instruction. I'm not training to become a vigilante crime fighter, and I hate--hate, hate, HATE--all the arguments on message boards and YouTube about what works "on the street" (the suburban cul-de-sac where you live is not "the street", mmakilla12, and you haven't been in a fight since grade school). All that said, I like to see an instructor doing his best to be honest about what works.

At this Wing Chun club, I heard the instructor say things like, "That's only working because he's letting you get away with it," and, "That's not going to move someone who's a lot bigger than you." He would then show alternatives. He had no illusions about his art being an ultimate fighting style, but he wasn't teaching a dance, either. He looked for things that didn't work like they were supposed to, and corrected them, even when they were executed with good form and had all the aesthetics of good kung fu.

In my own aikido, I struggle (internally, not verbally) with instructors who teach "center" and "connection" but have no time left over for the positioning and unbalancing that make throws and takedowns possible against an uncooperative opponent. The aikido they teach often looks very pretty, but doesn't bring down partners who haven't been conditioned to take falls. I'm sure some people genuinely enjoy this kind of martial arts training; they can have it. I want a reality check every once in a while.

I like seeing students sweat. I don't really feel I've gotten my money's worth unless my gi needs washing after a class. There will be time for tai chi in the park when I'm 80; right now, I want a workout. Like most martial artists, one of the reasons I first got into martial arts training was exercise.

The students at this club worked hard enough that they needed sweat rags and water bottles. Even when they were doing choreographed forms, they practiced with enough energy and did enough repetitions that it worked up a sweat. There are many people who equate traditional, stylized arts like aikido and Wing Chun with yoga and chi gong. Not here. The students at this club, despite their traditional, stylized training methods, were working hard.

I like clubs that keep pretense to a minimum. I am turned off by martial arts instructors and schools that take themselves and their traditions too seriously. I want to laugh at instructors who expect to be called "master". I am baffled by classes conducted in foreign languages students can't even pronounce, let alone understand. And I bristle at students being taught to treat their uniform and gear as religious relics. I think these kinds of things are usually the efforts of overzealous, misinformed Westerners trying to achieve what they perceive to be authentic Asian-ness.

My own experiences with authentic Asian-ness have been quite the opposite. I had the great privilege last fall of training with the aforementioned Hiroshi Ikeda, an internationally renowned master of aikido. When Ikeda Sensei's luggage did not arrive in time for the class, and he had no gi or hakama to wear, he dismissed it with a laugh and taught the class in his jeans and tee shirt. And though he occasionally stumbled over his English, he never spoke a word of Japanese after he greeted us with, "Onegaishimasu."

This Wing Chun club was similarly unpretentious. Clearly, clothing was supposed to be dark and functional, but I didn't see a set uniform. There were belts (sashes, in this case) that showed rank and official club shirts, but not everyone wore them. No one was speaking Chinese, except to call the instructor sifu ("teacher", similar in use to the Japanese sensei). Other than the occasional bow, there were no other Chinese affectations, either. Weapons and other equipment were treated as tools; they certainly seemed well cared for, but there was no sign of worship.

I like up-front information. I have complained before about martial arts clubs that aren't forthcoming with basic information. I regard any club with suspicion that doesn't supply information about rates or schedules until after the prospective customer has heard a sales pitch. Are they afraid their prices will scare me away? Are they gauging my gullibility? No matter how many times I think it over, I can't come up with a good, honest reason a club would conduct business this way.

The first thing the instructor did when I sat down was hand me a schedule, tell me what the monthly rates were, and tell me what was included in membership. He also told me that membership was month-to-month, which meant no contracts. That reminds me...

I like clubs that don't make their students sign contracts. Contracts are, in my humble opinion, a blight on the martial arts landscape. There are those (mostly people who run contract clubs) who defend them, and some even make some pretty good points in the process, but the fact remains that a contract can really only do one thing: force people to keep paying for something they no longer want.

What if I get hurt? What if my schedule changes? What if (as is happening to me now) there are changes at the club and I'm not sure if it's the place I want to train anymore? What if, a few months in, I decide that my body's just not up to the demands of the training that goes on at this particular club? In any of these cases, if I'm locked into a contract, I have to keep paying. Even more frightening are stories I've heard (here, for instance) of clubs that have closed down and sold the contracts to collection agencies, meaning that students have to keep paying for training at a club that doesn't even exist.

This Wing Chun club was not cheap (about $100 a month), but didn't seem to have any trouble hanging onto students without using contracts. And that makes me wonder why so many clubs seem to think they're necessary.

Finally, I like clubs that don't cost a lot. I debated with myself about whether or not to include this last one, because there are many very good clubs--the one I talk about here included--that aren't cheap. But I'm not a rich guy. I'm a lowly special education aide at a tiny little non-union public charter school. I have rent to pay and a baby on the way. I don't have much of a discretionary budget. The martial arts are wonderful, but they're not worth cutting into food and rent for. I can't afford expensive clubs, and I don't think the martial arts can afford to become exclusively a rich man's hobby.

I don't have a clever way to wrap this up; it was never really more than a glorified list. All I can say is, this is what I like. What do you like?

Friday, February 10, 2012


I'm going to begin here by directing my few readers to a better and more widely-read internet writer than myself. This particular writer happens to have the same parents I have.

My brother recently wrote a wonderful piece on The Inclusive about video games. Specifically, he aired his beef (shared by many of us who grew up on the NES, Sega Genesis, and SNES) with the kind of social games on Facebook and the iPhone that he calls "Villes" (think Farmville, Cityville, etc.). The purpose of these games, says my brother, is not be fun or interesting, but to hook players on a progression of increasingly difficult and expensive rewards. The goal in developing these games, he says, is to get a few gullible people so addicted that they're willing to pay real money for benefits that exist only in the imaginary world of the game.

My brother compares these games to B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning chambers:
This is why these games are free, brightly colored, and cute: if they get enough people in the box, some of people will keep hitting the button. If there are time delays constricting how often the button can be pushed, some people will pay for the privilege of hitting the button sooner. Although this sounds like a Dire Metaphor, it is almost literally accurate: pay fifteen in-game-currency units (sold at ten for a real-life dollar) to get the Pig Pen now, rather than waiting to accrue that many units over time.
My brother, mind you, has a much bigger and much more important point to make than his distaste for a particular kind of game; I encourage you to read the piece for yourself. But his grievance against the "Villes" got me thinking (as many things seem to these days) about the way we, as students, practice the martial arts.

I train because I like to. Sure, in the back of my mind, I'm on a years-long hunt for an elusive treasure known as the Black Belt, but that destination wouldn't be worth anything to me if I wasn't enjoying the journey. The martial arts fascinate me; when I'm working my way through a new technique, the next rank is the last thing on my mind.

But if you've ever been to an independent regional taekwondo or karate tournament, you've likely seen a very different attitude from mine about rank. You've seen cadres of "masters" who seem intensely proud of all the ranks and awards prominently displayed on their doboks and gis. You've seen children as young as nine who have already blazed through dozens of ranks to earn their black belts and are eagerly working on the next degree.

My mind is boggled by this kind of thing. In my own discipline of aikido, many instructors are middle-aged men who have yet to move beyond their first dan. Most organizations have only six ranks between zero and black belt, and usually most of those ranks do not have corresponding belt colors. Testing at my club is done only once a year. Rank, in my experience of aikido, is a personal milestone and a tool for designating instructors, nothing more. The art is its own reward--ars gratia artis.

Now, I'm not suggesting that anyone who's not doing rank the aikido way is doing it wrong. If I thought that, I never would have attempted my foray into taekwondo. What bothers me is a tendency I see among some martial arts schools to sell the next rank (for which there will of course be extra fees), rather than an experience, as their primary product, and worse, a tendency among students to buy it.

The last time I went to a taekwondo tournament, I watched black belts compete who could not punch straight or kick above their waists. I watched a red belt compete in a wheelchair--a man who cannot kick is nearing his black belt in an art that is roughly 75% kicking. These peoples' ranks are not indicators of skill; they are rewards for investments of time and money.

There are those who say that awarding ranks so freely makes a mockery of the martial arts. Personally, I couldn't care less about mockery. I put on long, white underwear and play with wooden swords with other grown men three times a week; the truth is already as funny as any mockery that might be made of it. What I do care about is the perception, fueled by people like the aforementioned tournament-goers, that the martial artist's purpose is to accumulate ranks rather than to practice an art.

A martial arts experience shaped by this perception stops being about learning and enjoyment and becomes Karateville, an endless cycle of chasing the next little reward. This is, of course, good news for people trying to cash in on testing fees. It's bad news, though, for all of us who just like the martial arts because they're interesting and fun: we don't want to confine our training to the handful of things on the next test, and we don't want to train with people more concerned about colored pieces of cloth than well-executed technique or a good workout.

Twice before (here and here) I have brought up Rob Redmond, writer of the excellent karate blog 24 Fighting Chickens. Redmond's take on rank is both cynical and iconoclastic. He goes so far in one piece as to suggest that the Karateville game is the only reason to have more than a few broad ranks:
There are not twenty discernible levels of skill in karate. I submit to you that there are probably only four or five. You are giving out ranks to reward attendance, memorization, and good conduct. You are encouraging the payment of fees for tests, belts, and for continuing lessons, but your ranks you give out do not have any real meaning. No one could look at your yellow belts and purple belts and see with their eyes which was the higher rank without you telling them first.
So what's a martial artist to do? Abandon rank altogether? I'm not going to advocate that here, though I do think the question of whether or not we really need rank in the martial arts is an interesting one. For now, I think we can ask some simpler questions of ourselves.

Is my pursuit of rank helping me focus on my training or distracting me from it? How different am I really from a student one rank higher or lower than me? How much recognition do I really need for learning this new technique or form? Is there an obvious purpose behind all the ranks at my school?

Socrates tells us that the unexamined life is not worth living. It naturally follows, I think, that the unexamined art is not worth practicing. If we only notice what we are awarded without ever asking questions about what we're really learning, we may be stumbling over the city limits into Karateville.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Waist Deep and Pushing On

The Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure
This is the best way back to the base?"
"Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
'Bout a mile above this place.
It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We'll soon be on dry ground."
We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

- Pete Seeger, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"

I may not know much about the martial arts, but I do know a little something about teaching.

In order to teach material, a teacher must first know the material. He must be able to lead students through it, answer questions about it, and find a way to make it relevant to different students with different points of view. A teacher who doesn't know his material simply can't teach.

There is something worse, though, than a teacher who doesn't know his material: a teacher who doesn't know his material and yet insists on moving forward as if he does. These are the teachers students alternatively laugh and grumble about, and peers whisper about behind their backs. These teachers don't just make fools of themselves, they drag their students down with them.

We've all had these teachers at one time or another, and I've always wondered at their motivations. Can the prospect of owning our ignorance really be so daunting that we're willing to humiliate ourselves and inconvenience others instead? In my own experience as an educator, I've found it's much easier and much less painful for everyone (including myself) if I just say, "I guess I need to do a little more work on this before we can move on. Let's do something else for now."

Yesterday at the dojo, the club's most junior instructor tried to lead us in some exercises with the bokken (wooden sword). This began with partners matching each other in an alternating sequence of blocks and strikes. For the next step, our instructor brought up the other yudansha (black belt) present to be his partner in demonstration.

The first exercise, said our instructor, was preparation for the second, in which the sequence was offset so that one partner was striking while the other was blocking. In verbal form, this idea made plenty of sense, but it became clear as he attempted to demonstrate that it simply didn't work. Try as he might, our instructor just couldn't make this particular block work for this particular strike, at least not in a way that allowed the sequence to continue.

His demonstration partner, an aikidoka of the same rank but with longer and broader experience in the art, did his best to help out, trying out little tweaks to see if he could make the sequence work. He couldn't. Our instructor was missing something, something important enough that the entire sequence ground to a halt without it. It quickly became obvious to all of us--except, apparently, our instructor--that this wasn't going anywhere.

For several minutes we sat, watching our instructor try to figure out this exercise so that he could teach it to us. Most of us got tired of holding the seiza position after the first minute or two and shifted to sitting cross-legged as we waited, bored and increasingly frustrated. We began to cast sidelong glances at each other, wondering when he would give up and move on to something else so that we could get back to training. He pressed on, though, trying to work it out with his polite but increasingly exasperated partner.

After every conceivable option had been exhausted, our instructor finally stopped. There was a collective sigh of relief as we all anticipated moving on to something more pertinent, perhaps the kumitachi (paired sword kata) that would be in our upcoming tests. Instead, the instructor turned to us, smiling, and said, "Let's try it. See if you can figure it out together."

I was dumbfounded. There were no words for it.

My training partner and I would find the words a few moments into the most confused and clueless training session in either of our martial arts lives. They were quiet words, grumbled to each other under our breaths. I won't repeat them here.

I don't say this very often about training, because I think almost everything we do in the dojo serves a purpose, but it was  a complete waste of our time. We wasted time watching our instructor try to figure something out for himself rather than teaching, and then we wasted more time trying to practice something we hadn't been taught.

This is the first time in this blog I have made so bold as to openly criticize an instructor. I want to make clear, though, that it is not his forgetfulness I am criticizing. There is little shame in ignorance in and of itself. The shame comes when we, in our pride, cling to our ignorance and try (always futilely) to row upriver against the current of reality.

That's why we train. Hard, honest training is the best cure I know of for ego and ignorance. If you can't admit you're out of shape, if you think you're better than you are, if you're in denial of an injury, hard training is a surefire cure. Every martial artist knows what I'm talking about; they all can remember a moment when their pride and delusions were dashed (perhaps painfully) by training.

For me, it was when a common nikkyo lock sprained my wrist. Until then, I'd thought I was ready to play with the black belts. Delusion cured.

What I did take away from yesterday's class is that, years from now, when my time comes to teach, I don't want to be the one clinging to my ignorance, the big fool pushing on as the water rises. And that means more training. The more pride and delusion I can get beaten out of me before students are depending on me, the better.

See you on the mat.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Coffee Machine Aikido

Do you remember the old vending machines that sold coffee, hot chocolate, and sometimes tea or soup, dispensing them out of a nozzle into a little paper cup for a few quarters? I do; there was one in the lobby in the science building in college (the machine has since been replaced by an entire Starbuck's--kids these days don't know how good they have it).

Dave Barry remembers them, too. In one of his columns, he recalls:
I myself developed the coffee habit in my early 20s, when, as a "cub" reporter for the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., I had to stay awake while writing phenomenally boring stories about municipal government. I got my coffee from a vending machine that also sold hot chocolate and chicken-noodle soup; all three liquids squirted out of a single tube, and they tasted pretty much the same.
I took a class this week from an aikido instructor who reminded me very much of one of those old machines.

I have been investigating the possibility of moving to another club for some time now, both for reasons I have discussed in print and for unrelated reasons I'm not going to put on the internet just yet. Only recently, I've started actually visiting other clubs.

The club I visited this week is home to several former members of my current club. One of them, a friend of mine, sent me an e-mail shortly after he left, inviting me to come take a look at his new club. I'm not sure how I feel about this kind of recruiting, but hey, I'm looking. So I showed up, worked out with an old friend, and got to see a different kind of aikido.

As it turned out, I think it was a little too different for me.

The instructor was a very nice, very friendly, very capable man with a background in many different martial arts. His expertise extended far beyond aikido into kung fu, boxing, muay Thai, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, among other things. He didn't wear a hakama.

His class felt strange to me. We trained with bo (six-foot-long staves not commonly used in aikido). We finished techniques with jujutsu-style armbars rather than what I know as aikido pins. We practiced gun disarms, some based on recognizable aikido techniques and some not. It was lots of fun, to be sure, but I had to look very hard for things I definitively recognized as aikido.

I asked the instructor afterward how accurately the class I'd just taken represented a typical night at his dojo. He admitted the gun disarms were a rarity, but said that otherwise what I'd just experienced was pretty typical of the classes he liked to teach. He told me that he liked to bring the perspective of other martial arts to aikido, to show that aikido can be a deadly (his word, not mine) martial art.

I'm going to abstain here from any argument about whether or not deadly is a word that ought to be used in reference to aikido. It's not really the subject at hand and I'd like to give the benefit of a doubt to a man whose experience and skill so obviously exceed my own.

What did concern me was the nagging feeling that I was getting aikido from one of the old coffee machines: so many flavors had become mixed together that I was having a hard time telling one taste from another. I couldn't help thinking that this instructor was trying so hard to bring all his martial arts experience into play that his aikido class had become an eclectic self-defense class instead.

There are probably those who don't see this as a bad thing, but I don't think I'm entirely comfortable with it. To be sure, aikido is a malleable martial art that can be fit into many molds. I don't dispute that, and I certainly don't dispute the value of crosstraining. But I decided when I began two years ago that aikido is an art form with its own value that transcends its material usefulness to me (ars gratia artis and all that); if I change aikido to suit my needs, then I'm afraid that decision was a lie.

I will almost certainly visit this club again. Even if I don't join, I'm sure I'll drop in from time to time just for the chance to work out with my old training buddies. In either case, it's unlikely I'll become a regular attendee of this particular instructor's classes.

Give me that old-time aikido; it's good enough for me.