Monday, May 16, 2011

The reality of attack

So you train endlessly. So you break boards. You practice martial arts. The attackers, the professionally violent are not looking for a fair fight. Here is a film from my home city last week. The film is of a lady getting attacked. The film is rough, but not too brutal to watch. It is well worth it, because bad guys don't play fair.

The lady is a friend of one of my dojo guys.

Many lessons can be taken from this film.

My first thought is this is similar to the encounter I got in with the drug crazed maniac last year. I entered from behind like this as my tsukuri. Tough to fight the unseen opponent. My results were quite opposite though, but my intention was as well. Remember the first rule of realistic martial arts - if you find yourself in a fair fight your tactics suck. Criminals know this rule better than martial artists do I bet.

Another big lesson is in how we train. Lowry Sensei often talks about training from the failure position, like how aikido begins like in this film. Most start from a 'I am winning' or at least a hyper vigilant state. Training yourself in both conditions is likely the way to go. Randori helps with this.

I try not to ever let people walk behind me downtown - know I know why.

But good news, the guy was caught today.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Who Owns the Release Motions?

Time to get attacked on the internet again! A few years back I shot some video notes of me doing the first release motion from a variety of positions and connections. The video was OK, not stunning work, but it was creative and fun to do. A fellow budoka decided to post on the video's comments. (I removed the organization name, as this was an individual's responses - not official beef from the organization) I also corrected the persons spelling, but not content.

"I found this video while checking for fraudulent and illegal use of people representing themselves as associated with (organization name) kata. I am a member of (organization name), and not only is this a pathetic attempt at replicating a portion of our syllabus, but let it be known this video and person has no association with or permission to attempt (organization name)'s Kata, no matter how badly and incorrect it may be...SHOW SOME COMMON RESPECT IF YOU CAN."

I think his statement brings up some interesting questions, so I will honor it, and become introspective as I blog about it. So what this gentleman is saying is that the organization he is a member of owns the kata, and it is illegal for others to practice it. While I respect this fellows integrity, and loyalty to his organization I feel like he has some baseless thoughts. I don’t care what he thinks about my skill level, but the idea that his organization owns a set of physical movements is ludicrous.

I wish to address these good fellows concerns. I have never claimed to represent or to be an associate of the organization in question. That was a false presumption on his part. I do have many good friends in the organization though. The reason this person decided to attack is because I used the name of the kata that his organization uses as a name for the kata. To be fair to me, certified teachers from that organization taught me the kata and taught me the name. It is the name I have always used. Whatever the name, it fundamentally is the same exercise performed in many organizations. I removed the name and any mention of any organization from the videos information because I am a nice guy, and I don’t want to ruffle people’s feather too much. Keep it. Peace man. I don’t care what it is called. Despite my apparent lack in skill in the exercises I have invested a great number of years into it, and I plan on continuing its practice until I do have some skill.

As far as calling me pathetic goes....“As soon as you concern yourself with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of your fellows, you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter. Testing, competing with, and criticizing others weaken and defeat you.”
- Morihei Ueshiba

So as to the legal question, can I legally practice this kata? Let us look at it from a legal standpoint first. According to legal precedent - trademarks don't cover exercise methods.

Pilates Lawsuit

As an interesting sidenote I found with a little more research I found Aikido is indeed trademarked. It is an insecticide for agricultural use. Aikido® is a registered trademark used for Insecticide for Agricultural Use and owned by Helm Agro US, Inc…” Oh yeah, as I mentioned, you can’t trademark an exercise.

Where does the release motion exercise come from? Was this organization the aikidoka is a part of, invent this kata as he suggests? The answer is no. It comes straight from Tomiki Sensei who died before the organization the artist belongs to was formed.

The most popular name for the exercises in the American Tomiki world is the Hanasu No Kata, or the releases. I estimate that the kata is practiced in at least 100 dojos in the United States. But where are the roots of it? Let us return to cannon film of our lineage of aikido. The film that presumably was filmed in the mid to late 1950s as Tomiki Sensei was developing his book and lecture series 'Judo Taido'. Clearly we see the exercises being performed by Tomiki Sensei that would become the exercises we modern American aikidoka practice. Tomiki Sensei has a slightly different emphasis than many modern players have, but the root is obvious. He starts around the 1:30 mark.

Then there is the influence of Miyake Sensei on the transmission of the exercises. She was a student of Kenji Tomiki and extremely influential on Tomiki Aikido spreading to the United States. I have heard she was often in charge of teaching foreign students in Japan. She has also been to the United States many times to teach. As the lore goes she was largely responsible for teaching (and maybe formally organizing) the series of exercises.

Nick Ushin Lowry ,8th dan and head of the Kaze Uta Budo Kai recently wrote about his knowledge of the history of the practice.

"First -- the name-- as a name "Hanasu no kata" probably goes back to someone stateside (Merritt?? Geis??-- I dont know specifically) -- I am told that Ms. Miyake didn't name it Hanasu no Kata nor did she consider it a " formal kata" as such and was surprised to see it referred to in that way -- a little research reveals that we can find similar/ and near identical forms which are named (I think arguably more accurately) "shichihon no kuzushi" (seven forms of balance break--comprising the first seven of yon kata but without throws) and "musubi renshu" (connection practice-- emphasizing kuzushi and control mechanics) -- I like these other names because the term hanasu -- "to break free or to release" is a pretty limited context for all what goes on in these exercises -- also to delineate it as a kata rather than an informal practice form or exercise was probably a misstep somewhere along the way that took on a life of its own as such things sometimes do."

"As a form of practice I think historically what we see in the eight releases is pretty close to the first section of koryu dai yon and also to the "dynamic 11," a warm up exercise that Tomiki used at Waseda in the 50's and 60's that is like the "8 releases" with a few waza added but all of them terminating with falls -- I suspect that the "dynamic 11" was Tomiki's invention and it probably gave rise to both the early part of yon kata and the eight releases -- the codification of 8 waza or practice forms that came to be called Hanasu no Kata may be an adaptation of those exercises originating from either Mr. Kogure or Ms. Miyake most likely"

One interesting story recently came to light on the ‘Thoughtful Sensei ‘blog, L.F. Wilkinson Sensei 8th dan, recently wrote…

“When one of my Sensei's Sensei came over to the US on tour, my wife and I were tasked with escorting her from seminar to seminar while my wife acted as uke for her teachings; a great honor I might add. It gave us some behind the scenes on how high level Japanese Sensei view some things. We walked into a dojo while on the tour and on the wall the dojo proprietor, concerned about the proper Japanese names, had cobbled together Japanese names and had done poster boards with the names of The Walking (and every movement in it) and the 8 Releases (and every movement in that also). Sensei read the boards, turned away towards Lynn and I so no one could see and used her hand to hide her laughter before she said, "Walking and releases have no name. Not kata. Just walking and just exercise." She appreciated the sincere efforts but she said that Tomiki had never thought the exercises important enough for formal names; there are not being formal kata per se.”

So is this series of exercises widespread? I quick search I found films of three different organizations performing the practice.

Some students in Fugakukai recording their practice.

The head of Kaze Uta Budo kai teaching it for the whole world to steal!

American Tomiki Aikido Association dojo


Who owns the kata? Anyone who sincerely practices it owns it. As said before trademarks don't cover exercise methods. One might argue that it is their ‘name’. Fine keep it. It is all just movement anyhow.

Who invented the exercises? They are human principles of motion. It has been around in some form before any modern organization or teacher, but if you want to name a person I vote for Tomiki. The only organizations I am aware Tomiki Sensei was part of was Kodokan and Shodokan. Perhaps Kodokan and Shodokan are the rightful owners. Oh wait, you can't trademark an exercise.

Will I continue its practice? In some form of fashion I will be studying until I can no longer move. If people don’t want other people to study something, perhaps it should never be taught to anyone. I don’t care the name of it, or how teacher X,Y or Z does it. It is a gift to the world. As Ueshiba Sensei wrote, “Aikido has no form - it is the study of the spirit. Ultimately, you must forget about technique. The further you progress, the fewer teachings there are. The Great Path is really No Path.”

As to my critics final phrase, "SHOW SOME COMMON RESPECT IF YOU CAN" I would be happy to show respect. I never met a man I didn't like. I have harmed none in my walk through the world. Since I have shown respect by thoughtfully responding to your queries, please accept a word of advice. I have private email. Feel free to use it. People will find me friendly and willing to work with any concerns.

Walk In Peace,


Monday, May 9, 2011

Interview of Bieler Sensei

A few months ago I did a series on interviews from various teachers. I managed to lose one of the responses, and I am late posting it. Jack Bieler Sensei from Denton Texas shared his views on the questions I sent out. Bieler Sensei is an excellent aikido, jyodo and iaido teacher. I always enjoy training with him and he is also excellent to share a beer with. I like Jack and I look forward to many years of training with him.

Why did you start training?

Actually, I was chasing a girl. Never saw her again, but I fell in love with the martial arts. You never know the right reason to start Aikido because you don’t learn what that is until you have trained for a while.

Why do you continue to?

There is always more to learn. Weaknesses to correct. Technique to improve.

Do you have a phrase(s) that sum up your ideal of martial arts practice?

Do not let mat time go to waste. Keep focus at all times. Consider every moment to be a life and death situation.

What do you like to see in a practice?

Lots of serious physical work. “One must strive for enlightenment with the same intensity as a man whose hair is on fire.” The attitude need not be grim or negative. There should be joy in practice, but the joy is emergent from the pleasure of concentrated study.

What do you not like to see in a practice?

Standing around talking, socializing. The skills are mastered in the body. Theory and history and politics can be discussed over pizza and beer.

How do you define ju/aiki?

I am starting to understand the difference between JU and AIKI. There are different flavors of AIKI – the invisible chasing form that leads and disappears, the rooted immovable form that feels heavy and breaks you like waves on a rock, the electric feeling that locks your body in a tight arc with an instant’s touch, the collapsing feeling that crumbles your posture as if you tried to grab sand. Usually we get stuck in one form or another, because it matches our teacher or personality or proclivities. JU seems to be one form of AIKI – specifically the invisible form that conforms like water to the other person’s movement. In JUDO this takes the form of soft entry, leading to the snapping of fully committed body power at the moment of the throw (IKIOI). In our AIKIDO this soft matching entry leads to throwing with a continuation, rather than blocking or pivoting of uke’s movement or power. There are other ways that are still transcendent. The common thread is to not use strength, which is inherently limited.

What adjective would you say your technique 'feels' like?

You tell me. At my best, I feel like I am loose & relaxed, disappearing, crisp, detached from my opponent’s power and attached to his movement. It’s hard to do all the time.

When does a practice become not-ju/aiki?

When strength becomes a substitute for body power and movement.

Do you have a favored technique right now?

Gedan-ate has become meaningful lately as a crumbling of uke’s posture, a “void” as Nick Lowry described, taking away the space uke needs to stand in. I’ve become very interested in Aiki-age, lifting the hands directly into the centerline without strength, which is the basis of Shomen-ate, Oshi-taoshi, releases and all of the kuzushi in the 17. Tsukizue in Jodo has become a study of continual attack, and a crucible for improving efficiency of the kihon, which fixes perceived weaknesses in the kata.

What is your favorite practice related book?

“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” is a great study of the issues of training and teaching.

One of the best books for the problems of aikido randori is “There are No Secrets” by Wolf Lowenthal, a student of Tai Chi master Cheng Man-ch’ing. Musashi is great for no-nonsense strategy. Pascal Krieger’s book “Jodo: Le Voie du Baton” has one of the best comprehensive discussions of budo principles and progression that you will find, as well as a good representation of about a third of the classical jodo system. Ellis Amdur’s work on Ueshiba is well-researched and thought-provoking. All of these inspire serious exploration.

What is rank? What does rank reflect?

In theory, rank is simply an indication of place in a particular organization’s curriculum or hierarchy. Kim Taylor has famously opined that the only meaningful ranks indicate some sort of concrete political privilege – such as the right to teach or promote. There is not an absolute scale, since different groups award rank differently and for different reasons. However, there are popular standards set by consensus based on the largest organizations – the Kodokan defined rank in Judo, and other empty-hand arts are expected to be comparable, whether they are or aren’t. The Kendo Renmei defined rank in weapons – so dan grades in Jodo and Iaido simply will be compared to them. Rank scale and meaning is therefore an organizational decision, and affects how outsiders perceive the group as a whole. Individually, it means nothing. You have to feel what someone can do.

What principle have you been focusing on in your practice lately?

Relaxing my shoulders into my center at all times, and using my hips efficiently to position my shoulders (and therefore arms) while using the simple walking step as a timer and form for directing power quickly and without effort. Following techniques to conclusion by sticking rather than projecting. Breaking out of kata to react to the real situation and connection – kata being an ideal response that would occur naturally given the exact prescribed actions of the attacker.

What is your relationship to kata?

Kata are a template that teaches internal and external principles within defined scenarios in a didactic progression. Some kata are designed to evoke questions that are answered later; for instance in Jodo the Omote (surface) kata give one answer, then later you study the Kage (shadow) of these kata that present different answers for the same scenarios. You have to go back continually and refine the earlier forms in light of your new perceptions or skills. The Shomen-ate of a Shodan is different from a Yonkyu because he has spent months studying Uki-waza, and is expected to apply the timing and rhythm and floating to improve his Atemi-waza. The Shomen-ate of a Sandan or Rokudan should be different as well. So the forms are not static, but evolve with the practitioner. Also movements that have one meaning in one kata may have different application in another kata or in randori. Mistakes in kata should produce kae-waza, not freezing; this approximates the function of randori in some arts that don’t have it.

What is your relationship to a competitive feeling in training?

Training against resistance validates technique. However people usually react negatively, in terms of principle, getting lost in the struggle. There is always competition in partnered practice, necessarily and realistically, whether by design or not. The key is to maintain victory over self, insisting that you win only by really using the skills you are trying to develop. You may lose, but lose better each time. Loss is inoculation, in small non-lethal doses. You have to lose thousands of times, and the Dojo is a safe place to do it. We must train to never give up, and to use strategy at all times. Competition does bring a vital immediacy, but entails problems including poor technique, ego and injuries.

How has your vision of practice changed as you have gotten older?

Saotome-sensei said he requires hard practice of young people to wear them out, so they can eventually do techniques without strength. However the tempering of strenuous practice while young is a foundation that lasts when youth fades. I wish now that my training in youth had been more vigorous, but we were doing “old man’s Aikido” from the start. Ueshiba, Takeda and other “supermen” started with very harsh training in their youths, and maintained their strength even when using no-strength exclusively.

Do you have another hobby or art form that you think about in martial arts terms and ideas?

Probably driving my car, since it really is the most serious life-and-death situation we put ourselves in every day. Politics, in terms of strategy, whether at work or relationships or government. Cooking.

Do you see any problems with the way aikido is practiced in the world at large, and do you have any recommendations for change?

No. It’s a big world and people do what they will. It would be nice if everyone recognized each other and there was no politics, but that isn’t realistic. Some people are more brutal than I would prefer, and some are more airy-fairy. The key to failure is trying to please everybody.

What martial art besides the one you practice do you think is interesting?

Nei gong, a type of qi gong that is the internal practice of Tai Chi, is interesting because it seems to build a place to put power, which enables you to relax the body. Ueshiba practiced internal focus and strengthening exercises like furitama to forge a strong center. These are organized tools to remove strength from elsewhere in the body, and unblock the real flow of power and movement.

What inspires you?

My teachers, who display the goals I work towards. My students, who I see grow and who keep me honest. Their efforts obligate me to do my best.

Do you have any aspirations for your art, dojo or organization for the future?

To improve myself, to give that to my students, to repay my teachers’ effort and faith with my own.

Anything on your mind you would like to add?

Thank you, Eric, for asking these questions and sharing everyone’s thoughts. “Everyone except myself is my teacher.” My dojo is always open for sincere people to visit and train.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Aikido is not a throwing art

Often in the martial arts we categorize art form by the desired result. We call karate a striking art, and judo a throwing art. Several of my teachers and I seem to be growing in a direction away from the traditional view of aikido. I believe many in the art would consider aikido a throwing art, or maybe a joint locking art. In these narrow views of results a great many tools get ignored or left out from the martial artist’s tool set. Very few aikido artists include ashi waza, foot sweeps into their practice of aikido. Similarly shime waza and quality atemi waza are often disregarded. Ground work is also ignored. Throws and pins are the vast majority of the curriculum.

Perhaps I would like to redefine my own art. It is not a throwing art – though I do use a lot of throws. Aiki, in my vision, is an art form where is the result is a crumbled structure of the opponent. Kuzushi, or structure crumbling is the primary goal. Throws happen because a structure is broken. Control happens when a structure is broken. Good atemi needs not cause percussive damage; it should cause the structure of the person to break down. Chokes and foot sweeps are also great ways to cause misalignment in an opponent’s structure. The deeper I explore the challenges of ground fighting, all I see is a direct correspondence to structure breaking.

Aikido is not a throwing art. Aikido is a structure breaking art with varied results happening from kuzushi. Redefining the goal is important. Many of the great teachers say that kake, or the execution of technique happens on its own if the structure is correctly broken. Maybe that is the result we should label our practice as. I know that is my current practice.