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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

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"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.