Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Hiki te" - what is it really about?

Pull backs in basic punches are ubiquitous in Asian traditional martial arts. You'll find the same concept - usually chambered at the hip - in arts are diverse as karate, taekwondo, silat, hung gar gong fu and taijiquan... the list goes on.

I've previously dealt with the subject of "chambers" quite exhaustively, as I have the traditional "corkscrew" punch, and I encourage readers to check out those essays to understand my position better. I won't be going into the subject of those topics (at least, not in any deep sense). It suffices for me to reiterate the central tenet of those articles: that basic form explores a full range movement. In reality, only a portion of that range might be used. Another way of thinking about it is that basics tend to get applied in an abbreviated form.

Why bother with a "fuller" form just to end up abbreviating it? Well apart from teaching you basic planes and angles of movement in an amplified way that enables you to magnify and study those basic planes and angles (as I describe in the article linked directly above but also here), a fuller form also serves a very important function: preparing for the fact that your techniques will face resistance.

Okay, so what do I mean by that? Why are larger (or rather "fuller") movements in any way related to preparing you for "resistance"? Surely the latter is all about just working with a partner? Well yes. But I'm talking solo form here - whether in a kata/shadow boxing or striking a bag/shield/dummy etc. That movement must prepare you for resistance even though at the moment of that solo practice there is none.

Let's say you're doing a movement from a kata - eg. a throw. If you then apply it against an individual, and, via the "magic" of modern computing, remove your partner who was being thrown (your uke) you'll notice that your actual hand movement is smaller in the applied technique than it was in the kata. The applied technique explores a smaller range of the movement that you made in the kata. Sometimes it is almost as large - though not quite. In other times, it is only half the movement of the kata technique you were interpreting. On average, I've found you end up somewhere in-between these two situations: the applied movement is approximately 75% of the kata movement.

Courtesy of
For example, if you want to pull on an arm, you might imagine you're pulling it all the way to your hip (see the silat basic at the start of the article). But you're very unlikely to get quite that far. As you can see from the adjacent image, you're probably going to pull back as far as your belly - not your hip - because of resistance.

So why not practice pulling just to the belly? For this simple reason: you're going to end up pulling even shorter than that if you modify your practice to reduce the movement in the solo form.

Put another way: larger movements condition you to expect larger movement against resistance. While that larger movement might be thwarted, you are still going to be pulling towards that "goal" - which means you'll be pulling harder and expecting more. Shorten the movement in a solo form and you'll apply it an even shorter form against resistance.

I call this the "75% rule": whatever your solo form movement, when applied against resistance it will be, on average, a maximum of 75% of your solo movement.

In other words, if, in solo forms, your motion corresponded exactly with the level/extent of your applied movement (be it a punch - which usually connects before full extension) or a pull (where you generally don't have a rag doll who will get thrown without a bit of effort), you'd find yourself moving 75% less than you needed to - ie. you'd fall short.

That is my direct experience in teaching over the last 30 years: when you abbreviate solo form in class, the applied movement stops working as it should. The full movement makes up for the resistance you don't have - all while teaching you such things as correct plane/angle etc. by magnifying the movement.

Courtesy of
Which brings me back to pull backs - hiki te - in karate.

You can see from the adjacent image how karate might well apply every single pull back: as a grab and pull while you strike. This is a great reason for hiki te and it certainly matches my thesis above. Many of my good friends in karate will teach any number of applications of kata where this aspect of hiki te is essential to making the application work (see my good friend Noah Legel's post here). Indeed, a substantial portion of my own interpretations involve using the hiki te to pull or otherwise control one limb (or the body) while striking with the other.

But is this the sole/main reason for hiki te?

I have already indicated that I do not think this is the case. I would argue that its function in basics is far more fundamental than that. Individual applications might be totally dependent on the hiki te as a pull or control. But in basic form, my sense is that it has more to do with what I started talking about: exploring a full range of motion.

As I've discussed, this teaches you essential angles and planes of movement.

But most crucially of all, it balances the body: your arms need to move in equal and opposite directions in order to remain balanced - never mind achieve optimal force.

If you doubt me, try punching the makiwara while your "pull back arm" is tucked into your belt. Then let it move into a natural pull back (however you want to do it). Compare the results.

Courtesy of
Here's another test: try running a race with one hand tucked into your belt. You'll find that your arm swing really is crucial to your time (see this article if you don't feel like a run).

It comes down to basic physics in the end. I'm tempted here to go to Newton's Third Law of motion - for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction - but that isn't really what's at work here. In basic terms, you need to have your body moving in a way that is efficient having regard to biology and physics. Your arms need to counterbalance each other for this to happen. The way we are built, one arm can't swing out with any force unless the other is counterbalancing it by going the other way. That is because you have to power your arms from your hips through your shoulders and into your arms via staged activation of body parts. If you try to move one of your arms without a corresponding action in the other, your entire body will feel the "brake" of this artificial idea. You are, after all, one connected organism with parts that necessarily work in concert (and react to each other's movements whether you like it or not).

I think that in many respects, the hiki te in basic form is nothing more than this.

But just the other night, my good friend, training partner and student Armando did point out to me that there is another very good reason for the hiki te: increasing your options.

The above video discusses punching from a trapping, or other slightly extended guard, position - and the desirability of actually pulling back a little even though it seems to take a "longer" route. It might well do the latter, but it avoids an easy dismissal by your opponent if they are trained in sensitivity drills.

You'll notice that Armando is able to "break" the connection to his partner Xin so that Xin can't "read" his next movement from physical contact. In our school (the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts in Bayswater, Perth) we spend a lot of time learning to "listen" with our hands - so it's hardly surprising that both Armando and Xin are aware that their next movement can be predicted through continuous contact. Sometimes that contact needs to be "broken" so as to break the "predictability".

And the extra room means Armando can find enough momentum to throw punches at different angles - where otherwise he'd have insufficient space/time to accelerate his punch and create enough force.

All of this feeds into the more general observation that punches naturally get pulled back as they recoil. As a friend pointed out recently, people certainly don't leave their hand extended after punching. Where do their hands go? To some form of pull back - to go back to a guard or to generate force, if nothing else.

Okay, that "pull back" might not be to a "full" position as adopted in traditional basics. But so what? Basics isolate full movements for practice. Against a resistant opponent, you might not get a chance to punch "full power": you might have to throw some stunted, abbreviated version, simply because of their resistance to you and the context in which you find yourself as a consequence. That doesn't mean you never explore your full range of motion - your full power. It doesn't mean you should practise little stunted movements "because that's all you'll ever apply". That sort of mentality sells you short - and manifests as even more stunted movement under pressure.

So don't worry about your katas "full" pull backs. Know that they show an idealised "full" movement for solo practice. Know that this "full movement" will be limited quite naturally in application. It doesn't need to be limited by you artificially. You will face enough limitations in life without imposing added ones yourself.

Nothing stops you from practising short-range punches, strikes and kicks. These are deliberate variations that should form part of your pantheon of training methods. Just don't fall into the trap of some sort of absolutist idea that your solo form "needs to match reality" in every case. Solo form isn't reality. And, paradoxically, a fuller movement in solo form is more likely to lead to the successful application of your technique than some stunted variation that "physically matches resistant reality".

As my instructor Bob Davies used to say: "Pull back to elbow someone behind you as hard as you're punching someone in front." It's all about counter balancing the body. The rest - hiki te as a pull or control in interpreting kata movement - is all a bonus once you have good, solid body mechanics.

Copyright © 2017 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Winner - Best Martial Arts Blog 2017!

I'm very proud to announce that The Way of Least Resistance has received a "Best Martial Blog"award from the security site CreditDonkey!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rousey v Nunes - a tutorial on how NOT to receive strikes

It's more than a year since I wrote my analysis of Ronda Rousey's loss to Holly Holm.  My conclusion back then was as follows:
"If there's a lesson in there for Rousey it is this: in a stand up fight, simple aggression is often enough to win against an unskilled opponent.  And if you're a good grappler, it will certainly give you some good chances to close the gap and use your real skills.  But if you want to fight a good stand up fighter, you need to know enough about stand up defence." 
It would seem that in the intervening year, Rousey has done nothing - and I mean absolutely nothing - to improve this skill, as was clearly evident in Rousey's fight last night against Amanda Nunes.

Many think that the cornerstone of stand-up fighting is attacking: striking, in the form of punching and kicking. Indeed, this is very much the philosophy of some schools who tout themselves as "target focused".

But, as I have stressed over many years and in many articles, your ability to overpower an opponent who is even remotely skilled has less to do with your capacity to hit harder than it does to not be hit.

There's a good reason karate has techniques we call "uke". Although "uke" is commonly translated as "block", this is a complete misnomer. The true translation is "receipt" (coming from the Japanese verb "ukeru" which means "to receive").

I have argued over the years that uke - the techniques for receiving blows - are really the cornerstone of Eastern civilian defence arts like karate, in much the same way as body evasion/movement (particularly slipping, dodging, weaving etc.) form the cornerstone of Western stand-up arts like boxing.

In other words, martial arts mastery comes down to more than just hitting bags or breaking boards - inert objects that neither "strike back" nor try to thwart your own strikes. Whether you're talking civilian defence or sport, martial arts mastery comes down to how effectively you are able to receive your opponent's strikes. If it came down to how hard you hit things, you'd never need to move beyond hitting bags.

And by "receive" I don't mean "absorb" or "take them on the chin": I mean "receive" them in a way that ensures they never land - whether it's by pre-empting them, slipping/dodging them, deflecting them, wedging and jamming them and, yes, even blocking them. In other words, you need to be able to deal with an opponent who is resistant. Yes, you should be able to hit hard. But that is not sufficient. Nor is it the main skill. When it comes to facing an opponent, what will set you apart from a beginner is the way you cope with an opponent - not how hard you can hit something that is non-resistant.

In her fight with Amanda Nunes, Ronda Rousey showed that she had still not learned to "receive" strikes in any way other than to "block them with her face". Just watch the video below.

It's interesting to me to hear Rousey's coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, shouting "head movement!" through most of the fight. He shouts it when she's not even engaged - as if he's asking her to bob and weave for no reason - to do a little dance. Presumably he didn't mean this: he was warning her to use defensive skill against Nunes' attacks. Sadly for Edmond - and even more for Ronda - it seems he was telling her this far too late in the day: she didn't move her head at all. She didn't have any situational reflex to do so.

Before that, he can be heard urging Rousey to "make her miss". Which is exactly what the art of "defence" or "receiving" is all about: making your opponent miss. "Boards don't hit back" is, as I've said before, better restated as "Boards don't make you miss". Different fighting systems have different ways of achieving this. But again, Rousey didn't seem to have a clue as to how to make Nunes "miss". Instead, Nunes hit her mark almost every time. I'm not the first person to note that this is almost certainly because of Rousey's poor coaching at the hands of Tarverdyan.

It's important to note that "uke" is, at its most basic level, present in every art in terms of the kamae or guard. In karate it focuses on using the arms to intercept blows. In gloved fighting sports it involves keeping your arms a little higher, closer to the face and, most importantly, keeping your chin down. Rousey did none of these things. Yet this is all a fundamental of "uke" in boxing (which she was attempting to simulate). Her guard was wide open at critical points - particularly whenever she kicked. Her chin was up. She looked like a rank amateur.

By contrast, Nunes clearly showed that she knew exactly what she was doing when it came to making Rousey miss. You can see all this from the adjacent snapshots: Where Rousey threw a totally predictable jab, Nunes "received" it with skill, slipping it on the inside. She did that while simultaneously throwing an overhand right cross. If Rousey had had any plans of throwing her own right cross, this was cut off before it could even begin. This "cutting off" is another example of "uke": pre-empting or negating a blow before it even begins through clever setup.

Last of all, Tarverdyan urges the hapless Rousey to "Move, move, move!" Then he says something that reveals his and Rousey's entire (rather transparent) gameplan:
"Clinch, clinch, clinch!" 
And Rousey tries to do so - on at least three or four occasions.

Unfortunately, Nunes knows what early UFC stand-up fighters (used to competitions that did not permit grappling) had forgotten: that a large function of "uke" is to avoid the clinch.

Consider the following random application from taijiquan which is the first one to come to my mind (I've filmed dozens over the years, so please don't take these as an "authoritative" description of how to avoiding a clinch - it's just an interpretation of one traditional technique against a clinch):

Indeed, Nunes does something not too dissimilar in her defence against Rousey's clinch by pulling back and punching over the top.

By contrast, my defence above uses a straight push and raises a leg to the centreline to negate any knee attack after the clinch. Of course, knee kicks were never Rousey's intention: her whole game plan was to get her opponent into a clinch and then throw from there.

Nunes planned for that. So she (rightly) assumed that the clinch was a setup to a throw, not a striking counter and simply pulled away (her bum back, as per my application) and punched over the top. Good uke.

Either way, she didn't let herself get tied down. She didn't fall into the trap many boxers and competition stand-up fighters used to do (and often still do) of thinking that the clinch is a relatively safe space: where you are in too close for punches (particularly gloved ones) to have effect.

Modern sports fighter strategy teaches us that the clinch is potentially disastrous for the stand-up fighter - especially one who is reluctant to go down to the ground. It may surprise you, but none of this is "news" in traditional civilian defence arts. In my research I've noted that the "knowledge of the ancients" has long taught that being tied down in a defence environment (as opposed to a one-on-one sporting contest) is disastrous: you face the possibility of weapons, multiple attackers, rocky uneven terrain... Let's just say that there's a reason why civilian defence arts gravitate towards stand-up fighting rather than grappling as a base art: you don't want to be tied up with one opponent on the ground. Where traditional civilian defence arts engage in grappling, they do so with a view to minimising any prolonged engagement with one opponent and maximising opportunities for escape.

And none of this negates the concept of having good grappling skills. In a sport like MMA, they are essential. In civilian defence, they are still highly pertinent. After all, knowing what to do if you get taken down to the ground (and knowing how to fall before that) are really important because there's a good chance this will happen to you.

The corollary to this is that if you want to fight in MMA - or defend yourself in a civilian context - and expect to do so against an opponent who is remotely skilled in striking, you need to learn stand-up skills.

In particular, you need to learn the art of defence - specifically "uke" or how to "receive" attacks.

Depending on the focus of your art, this could be ducking, slipping or weaving, or it could be parrying, deflecting or wedging/trapping. Or, Heaven forbid, actually blocking or checking.

Which is why I have railed so heavily over the years about the trend in arts like karate to interpret all uke as "strikes, throws, locks, holds... anything but uke". Sometimes an uke is just an uke. Indeed, I'd say this is true most of the time.

Because what we can see from the Rousey vs. Nunes fight is just how badly a fighter fares when they have no real stand-up defence skills: they become the proverbial punching bag/board that many "target focused" martial artists hope for. They become the totally unskilled stand-up fighter of the kind Rousey could formerly overpower using little more than sheer athleticism and naked aggression.

On the latter point, we need to be clear: Rousey was defeated in under a minute, but there is a world of difference between her loss and, say, McGregor vs. Aldo, where Aldo was knocked out in 13 seconds. That wasn't a systematic annihilation of a human punching bag, but rather one fighter timing a blow to land against a highly skilled opponent.

By contrast, Rousey was just a target. She had no way of thwarting Nune's attacks. She had no way of "receiving" them intelligently. Where Aldo took a gamble and opened up a gap that McGregor exploited, Rousey was all gaps, all the time. Her destruction was inevitable.

Rousey didn't lose to Nunes because the latter was faster, stronger, younger, had better reaction time, was taller or had longer reach. She lost because her stand-up fighting skill was, as I pointed out in my previous article, not very good.

She didn't have the basics in 2015...

And she didn't have them at the end of 2016. 

She could throw "funny punches" - and that's about it. I know these are attacks only, but they speak volumes about her general stand-up fighting skill set - offensive as well as defensive. She moved - and still moves - like a rank beginner in stand-up fighting. 

I've heard Nunes has a black belt in BJJ, but I really don't know how she moves on the floor. Even if she isn't exactly in her element there, she's certainly not ignored grappling to the extent Rousey has has ignored stand-up. 

But it wouldn't have mattered anyway: they never got close to the floor. MMA is increasingly showing that while you might get away with a poor ground game (I'm not recommending this by any stretch!), a professional stand-up game is a pre-requisite for the octagon. Rousey didn't have this prerequisite for all these years - a fact obfuscated by the relatively poor quality of her opponents.

Ronda Rousey is arguably one of the greatest grappling/throwing fighters the world has ever seen. But her refusal - or rather her coach's refusal - to accept that the stand-up game requires significant skill (not just a bit of "head movement" and a few "jabs" leading to a clinch) was her undoing. 

Rousey assumed that while her judo required years of dedicated basic training, stand-up skills came down to nothing more than athleticism and aggression: a lot of gym work, bag punching and wonky shadow boxing. This was a massive miscalculation of the kind you expect from a lay person - not a professional fighter. It certainly isn't a mindset shared by either MMA stand-up fighters or serious practitioners of the traditional stand-up martial arts - never mind those who are both (as the video below shows). As to her coach... the less said, the better. If Rousey is to be critiqued for anything, let it not be her loyalty to him, which is, at the very least, admirable in that it shows her loyalty to friends (even if it also shows a significant degree of cognitive dissonance).

In the end, mine might be a brutal assessment. But it matches its brutal finish of the Rousey vs. Nunes fight and, I assume, Rousey's career in MMA. I have to call it as I see it. I wish Ronda Rousey all the best in the future. I think she is a star performer. She was let down in this performance.

Copyright © 2017 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Train as if someone is recording you

One of my role models in hard training -
Graham Ravey Sensei 8th Dan Goju Ryu
When I first started karate my instructor told a story in class about a student he observed training on his own.  He'd arrived at the dojo during a time when no class was scheduled, gone onto the floor and undergone a 1 1/2 hour training session so disciplined, so focused that my instructor had watched the entire thing, transfixed.

Never once did the student break concentration or pause for a rest: he just kept repeating the same movements, one after the other, so that he went well into, and over, his VO2 max.  Watching himself in the mirror, he'd only move on to another technique once he'd achieved whatever (high) standard he'd set.

At the end, he finished his last technique, moved to "yamae" and remained motionless for a minute, his breathing ragged, his body so drenched with sweat that his gi had become translucent.  Then he bowed. and left the floor.

All without a word.

Over the years I've pondered this anecdote considerably - often wondering whether I had the physical stamina, but more the mental discipline, to train that way.  It seemed an almost unattainable ideal.

I've long admired this video of my friend Mark Cook training solo.
It reminds me of the story my instructor told me all those years ago.

But very recently I have realised that I do, to some extent, already train this way.  In some respects it has become the cornerstone of my personal practice.  I just hadn't noticed.

My training keeps me in whatever shape I'm in - despite aging, injury and a chronic immune illness.  It has kept me in active martial arts training long after I was told by medical experts that I wouldn't be.  Occasionally I even wonder how it is that I can do some of the things that I end up doing.

Sometimes it occurs to me that I am able to do some things I couldn't do when I was much younger and healthier.  This year I turn 50 and I've set myself the goal of doing 15 chin ups and 80 push ups on my birthday.  Achievable?  I think so.  But why am I so confident?  Logic should tell me otherwise, but my intuition (based on experience) does not agree!

Last year's birthday challenge

The reason I trust my intuition is a mix of focus, determination and gradual, responsible conditioning.

Without realising it, thanks to my training I've now become more focused than I have ever been in my life.  When I'm training I remain in the moment.  I don't give up.  I keep going.  I redo a movement time and time again until I get it right.  I don't care if I am out of breath or dripping with sweat.  I ignore the pounding headaches, the ache in my muscles, my gasping breath and my racing heart rate.  I push on with single-minded determination to my goal.

I think that what lies behind the effectiveness of this mindset is the following:
  • I set a goal that is achievable at that given time.  I never bite off more than I can chew.
  • I don't stop until I reach that goal.
  • I (usually) listen to my body and back off before I do myself harm.
  • Lastly, but most importantly, I train as if someone is recording me.
In case you haven't noticed, I produce a lot of videos.  These aren't carefully planned or rehearsed.  They are filmed ad hoc during or straight after lessons as the mood (and topic) takes me.  When I don't get it right on the night, I usually let it go.  (Often opportunities to record something come and go because, for reasons I'll explain in another article, no two lessons are alike and by the next lesson I might well have moved on, and the moment - and thought - will be gone.)

It's for this reason that I will sometimes stay behind after class to film a technique or form for the sake of completing our students' technical database.  In most cases I won't be "prepared".  I might not have done the particular form for weeks, months or even years.  I might be feeling unwell, sore or be injured,  But I set myself the challenge of filming the technique or form for posterity anyway.

And so (perhaps to the chagrin of the student(s) who are filming) I will keep repeating the form or technique again and again, one after the other, until I get it right.

Those who practise forms will know that after one performance you're usually out of breath.  After two in a row you have exceeded your VO2 max.  After three you're starting to flag.  But I keep going.  If I absolutely need to, I give myself a 10 second break.  After 10 or so performances, I might stop for 30 seconds to view the footage.  Then I'll (foolishly) go back and start again.

Why "foolishly"?  Because the simple fact is that once you're that fatigued, your performance standard invariably drops.  And your chances of making an error increase exponentially.  So why not stop after the first few?  Because I keep searching for that elusive (impossible) "perfect" performance.  I want to get it "right" - as a benchmark  that will serve as a reference for the database.  I want to set an example.  It needn't be the "best" and it needn't be "perfect" (if that is remotely possible) but it must clear my own standard of suitability as a student resource.

This means it must not have sequential or technical errors.  The timing or tempo must be in the ballpark of what is acceptable.  The amount of force generated, and the focus and "finish" must be sufficient to illustrate the point. 

It doesn't matter if person X or Y can do it better.  They aren't there for me to film.  There's only me.  So I, with all my limitations, must make do.

The net result is that I always set out (somewhat optimistically) to get it done in one to three takes.  The reality is, judging by the video record, that the average is more like ten to fifteen.  Mostly in a row.

The walking cane form. I think this was Take 15 in a row.  Not what I wanted, but it
will have to do!

I recently refilmed a walking cane form this way after a Saturday class.  A student stayed behind to film.  A few others were watching.  The form is quite athletic - especially for an old guy like me.  The first performance went off the rails as I tried to remember and emphasise all the little details I wanted recorded for posterity.  Juggling mental concepts like this inevitably takes you "out of the zone" so you make one or more tiny mistakes here and there.

So okay, Take 2.  That is nearly perfect - but right at the end I realise I've almost finished and it's all going great!  And that realisation is enough to make me fluff the penultimate move.  On Takes 3 and 4 I'm so out of breath that my performance standard drops significantly: even though I've got through the form more or less without error, I know the result sucks.  It won't do as a reference point for students.  So I take a 20 second breather and start again.  And this time I get it right, but it's too slow and lacking in "oomph".  The two Takes after that are much too fast.  The three Takes after that are slower but lack focus or definition.  The two Takes after that lack force.  In the Takes after that I slip on a pool of sweat or miss a technique.

Somewhere along the way I get through one complete performance.  And it feels so-so.  I pause to check the footage.  And it looks okay.  It clears the bar.  Just.  It ticks the boxes without feeling "great".  It lacks the energy and spontaneity I had at the start, the technical proficiency in individual movements I'd honed in the middle and the flow I'd established somewhere towards the end.  But it works.  Well enough.

By that time I realise that I've been training solidly for an hour.  I'm drenched with sweat. I've been focused on one goal the entire time, trying to stay "in the zone".

When I think about it, I now do all my training - even my "kitchen training" in the same way.  I'm so used to the work ethic of video recording that I now apply it universally.  If I have half an hour at the gym at lunchtime, I am focused for that whole half hour.  If I am leading a class in repetitions I am focused.  I train as if a camera were on me - as if I'm trying to "record it for posterity".  Whether it be my form in push-ups (and the required number) or the performance of a form, or the execution of a throw or projection, I always approach the task the same way: with the goal of "getting it right" - right enough to serve as a point of reference.  

I initially filmed this with my own performance being less than stellar.  And received
howls of protest and derision.  I had to re-film it with the right focus and effort - all at some
personal cost due to injury, including a broken hand.  Such is life.

The fact that there is no camera on me most of the time is, of course, irrelevant.  Because the net effect of this work ethic - arrived at after years of footage in and after class - is that I've learned to make the most of very limited periods of time.

Quite subconsciously, I've found myself arriving (more or less) at the point of mental discipline shown to my instructor by that anonymous student all those years ago.  

So when it comes to training on your own - or in a class for that matter - my main piece of advice is this: always train as if someone were recording you on video.  It'll keep you on your toes - and in the moment.  There's no better way to attain mental discipline and "zanshin".  There is no better way of making your training really count.

Copyright © 2016 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, June 24, 2016

The debt we owe to our masters

In most karate schools it is common for students to bow not only to the teacher and each other - but also to the shomen (front) where pictures of the dojo's founders are displayed.  Karate students will be familiar with the expression "shomen ni rei" (or "shinzen ni rei") - ie. "bow to front/tradition".  We used to do this but discontinued the practise in the mid '90s - partly because we did not want to associate our dojo with Shinto practices.  We are, after all, a secular school and have no intention of promoting (or discouraging) religious faith of any kind.

But lately we have reintroduced a practice of bowing, at least symbolically, to our teachers - both recent and ancestral.  Why?  Because we view it as a solemn acknowledgment of their contribution.  We would not be standing where we are but for this contribution.  As a tradition, our ritual bow is both contemplative and meditative: it makes us pause to appreciate those who gave us the knowledge upon which we are building.

And I do mean "building".  We are not mindless automatons, doggedly repeating the lessons of the past without inquiry or creativity.  Instead we explore - and as a result our arts evolve.  In case we miss something, we keep the original form there as a reference point: something to come back to in order to verify that we haven't strayed off course and misunderstood the lessons of the past.

In this regard Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying: "Poor is the student who does not surpass his master."  The central concept is that students should build on what their teachers taught.  Indeed, that is the way humanity has progressed from the dawn of our species.  It is the only way humanity has progressed.

Inevitably this means that a student must absorb the instructor's knowledge - if not all of it, most of it - and then add something to this body of knowledge.  As Isaac Newton is reported as saying: "If I have seen farther it is because I have been standing on the shoulders of giants."

In an earlier essay I remarked on the incredible body of information contained in the "knowledge of the ancients".  After all, traditional martial knowledge, while "antique", remains largely as relevant as it ever was.  That is because have no reason to suppose that we, in our modern Western lives, have surpassed all the technology employed by our ancestors in unarmed or weapons combat.  Martial arts are, by their very nature, concerned with primeval skills because they relate to our most primitive tools: our bare hands or extensions of these (in the form of sticks, swords or other weapons).

If you think "modern innovation" has necessarily surpassed ancient martial knowledge, consider this: a large number of us in the privileged developed world will never face serious violence - that is a statistical reality for which we (fortunate) people should be grateful.  Indeed many (most?) of us are likely to go through life enduring little more than a few of scuffles.  Those of us who do experience more significant violence are most likely to do so in a domestic environment  - which is certainly horrific, but in terms of prevention or management, a far cry from the "alleyway scenarios" painted by "reality-based self defence experts".

Which leaves the average martial artist somewhat removed from our ancestors who lived in more brutish times.  Disregarding those who engage in security, police or military work, the closest most marital artists get to "combat" is usually a controlled training or competitive environment.

So if we are interested in civilian defence (as opposed to engaging in a very specific competition format, be it boxing, muay thai, MMA, kyokushin knockdown karate, sanda, san shou, BJJ, judo, western wrestling or fencing) we go back to the knowledge of the ancients.  It is the traditional way.

Have I expanded (or at the very least interpreted) that traditional way so as to add something "new"?  Most certainly.  But in every case, I have done so after careful observation of what has worked for me under pressure.  Consider, for example, the use of the taijiquan sequence known as "carry tiger home to mountain".  I was first taught this sequence by my karate teacher Bob Davies, then my internal arts teacher Chen Yun Ching.  Did either show me the specific application below - ie. against an o soto gari (outside leg reap)?  No.  I have however used this particular application for 30+ years, often in sparring against judoka and jujutsu practitioners - and it works.  So this particular application goes into my personal "box of tricks".

The same applies to many, many other applications I've "developed".  I put "developed" in quotes because my interpretations are arguably so obvious one wonders whether I can claim to have developed anything at all: it is more likely that I've simply reinvented the wheel in each case.  Am I "building" on what the masters taught - or am I finally understanding their lessons?  You decide.

Here is another video taken on the same night, concerning the "rollback and press" movements from the taijiquan sequence known as "grasp bird's tail" - again taught to me by both Bob Davies and Chen Yun Ching.

You'll notice that the above application uses the "pass" maneuver so ubiquitous now in wrestling, BJJ and MMA.  In other words, it is "thoroughly modern" in some senses.  Furthermore, the way the elbow lock is applied, in particular the direction in which your opponent is directed, negates a dive by your opponent to your legs.  Again, this seems terribly "modern" until you consider that I learned the importance of this concept not in a gym or cage but while training in a park in Hong Kong - where an internal master taught me some very timely lessons about civilian defence grappling.

So I credit all my teachers - particularly my main teachers, Bob Davies, Chen Yun Ching and James Sumarac.  I have their pictures, and the pictures of our ancestral teachers (Chen Pan Ling and Chojun Miyagi) on our "shomen".  I am proud to honour them with a bow each lesson.

Nor does it matter that I left my first teacher, Bob Davies, at the end of 1996 after 16 years of loyal following.  Just because you leave your teacher to pursue another path does not diminish their importance in your martial arts development - indeed in your life.  Bob Davies will always be my teacher - and his picture will always hang on my "shomen".  I am not only happy to credit his teaching (as this blog will testify), but I feel obliged to do so: the imprint he left on my martial arts (and my character) is indelible, his lessons lifelong.  The same has been true of my beloved, now retired, master Chen Yun Ching and my esteemed teacher and mentor James Sumarac.

I notice that many students of the martial arts "fall out" with their teacher, then try to revise history, often rubbishing that teacher in the process.  Assuming these students have had a productive career with their teacher (ie. they have not been totally misled by nonsense), what they don't realise is that in so doing they are rubbishing themselves - or at the very least, the knowledge upon which they rely.  In the case of long-term training relationships, it is fair to say that you reflect your teacher - you are an extension of him or her.  In my case, there was certainly a time when almost everything I knew came from Bob Davies.  Even now, 20 years later, a sizable portion of my martial knowledge can be directly attributed to him.  For that he has earned my respect.  I am what I am because of him.  And I am happy to acknowledge it, even if our formal affiliation ended long ago.  We remain on cordial terms.  Certainly my feelings towards Lao Shi Bob remain those of deep respect.  This is a respect I owe him.  Just as he owes a debt to his teachers and those before him.

We martial artists are all subject to the same human frailties.  We can have personality conflicts, we can have different objectives/goals and varying technical preferences.  These are all fine.  There is no shame in saying to your teacher: "I have decided to go onto a different path."  Just be sure to remember where you came from - and to give due recognition for how you got to where you are.

In the case of the classical arts, the knowledge you gained from your teacher is the product of a long line of tradition.  Whatever you paid for this knowledge, it was likely far too little relative to what you gained.  You benefited from hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom.  You most probably paid less than you would have for a common gym membership.

So at some point your path up the mountain might well diverge from that chosen by your teacher.  If it does, never forget that your teacher - and your teacher's teachers - got you to where you are standing right now.  And the farther up the mountain you are, the greater your debt to them.

How is this debt discharged?  Very simply: with appropriate acknowledgment.

For these reasons I will continue the tradition of bowing to the shomen: I will acknowledge the contribution of my teachers.

Whether or not you follow a custom of bowing to a "shomen" in your dojo, I believe it is incumbent upon you to observe at least the general principle embodied in this ritual.  It is part of your giri: your duty as a student of the traditional martial arts.

Copyright © 2016 Dejan Djurdjevic