Thursday, December 31, 2009

The importance of visualisaton

I find visualisation essential in martial arts training: from learning new techniques, to applying them in a dynamic context.

There was a time (2003) when I was confined to a hospital bed on a drip for 3 whole months. All I could do was visualise things. I used to look at the drip and think of it as an arm, with the bend as the elbow. Then I'd imagine locks or holds. I progressed to thinking of entire sequences in 3D (takes a bit of mental discipline and practice). It was during this time that I conceived of most of our 2 person drills.

The net effect was that when I did return to training (some 20kg/44lb lighter) I was able to apply techniques I'd never applied before in sparring.

The biggest "down side" to "just visualising" (apart from physical weakness) was that I couldn't judge speeds and distances properly, so I copped a few twisted fingers and broken toes as well as walking into a few punches, missing deflections etc.

However once I got over that hurdle however, my fellow students remarked that I'd seemed to have improved from before.

The drill in the video below is something I visualised while I was in hospital. The video was taken shortly after my return to training. I had never done this drill like this before - certainly not at this sort of speed. Post-visualisation my body seemed to have found the "key" to more fluid movement.

That's probably the best example I can think of, but there are many others.

So visualisation doesn't displace working with a partner by any means. But is it useful/important? Hell yes!

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fight dynamics: how civilian defence and combat sports play out differently

Two recent blog posts have caught my eye - both relating to broadly the same issue, and one that is close to my heart: the difference between combat sports and civilian defence.

I have previously described, in some detail, the difference between civilian defence and combat sports (or military combat, for that matter). However both these blog posts offer a different perspective which I find quite enlightening.

The first blog entry is Andre Bertel's article "Traditional Karate Fighter?". Andre states that traditional karate is not a fighting art. He says:
    "What I mean by a fighting art is a martial art which is for 'dueling with an opponent and winning'. Traditional karate is technically not a martial art which produces fighters, but rather a ‘hit and escape self-defense system’."

Andre Bertel in ippon shobu competition action - a particularly nice tokui-renzokuwaza!

The second blog entry is Phil Elmore's "The myth of pressure testing". In this article Phil provides an excellent summation the essential difference between the concepts "resistance" (which sport combat provides) and "pressure testing" (which, in the broader sense of the full range of civilian defence scenarios, sport combat does not). There are simply too many good quotes one could take from Phil's article, so I'll restrict myself to this one:
    "Sport methodology is inherently unrealistic because it transforms the asymmetrical goal of pragmatic self-defense into the symmetrical goal of winning the match between two people."
What I think both Andre and Phil are saying, is that the dynamics of a civilian defence confrontation (ie. how the fight plays out, what techniques one will use or have to use, what tactics one will have to employ etc.) are fundamentally different from a combat sports confrontation. These stem from both different environmental variables and different goals/objectives.

In terms of the latter, it is apposite to note that the primary objective of civilian defence is defence - not attack. Yes, you might counter attack or even pre-empt in defence. But it is still a species of defence. Your main aim is not to get hurt - not to hurt.

By contrast, when you fight in a sport, your aim is to hurt - ie. win the bout whether by knockout or points scored by striking your opponent. In civilian defence you win even if you don't hurt your attacker - so long as you (and/or anyone you're protecting) escape unharmed.

In practice this often involves hurting the other person. But nothing changes the fundamental point that hurting is not your objective. It is a means to an end. In civilian defence you might well strike, or apply some other technique to, your opponent. But then again, if the opportunity presents, you might just run away. The latter simply does not apply to sports. In combat sports, hurting is the objective.

I am strongly of the view that this difference translates to how traditional technique is meant to be applied. I see arts like karate as predominantly "counterpunching" - that is to say, you react to a stimulus by deflecting/evading and countering. Sometimes this can be done simultaneously. Sometimes you pre-empt. But in the end, you are not an aggressor.

This point might seem to be a subtle distinction, but I believe it is significant nonetheless in determining the dynamics of a particular fight (ie. how it is played out).

Both combat sports fighters have to accept some role as an aggressor. In true civilian defence only one side is the aggressor - the other side might use aggression as a regrettable necessity, but he or she is not an "aggressor" in the broader meaning. Having 2 aggressors effects entirely different dynamics from having an aggressor vs. defender.

So this makes me wonder: How are these dynamics affected? My friend Marcel posed the following question on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum:
    "I guess to understand your argument it would help to know how the techniques and training methods would need to be modified, other than prioritizing training to improve overall athleticism.

    Here is an example of what I am talking about. Lets say I have a good punch. Well, if I am approached by someone wanting to harm me I put my hands up, tell him I don't want any trouble, and I wait for him to give me an opportunity to knock his block off so I can then do what I need to be it run away, call the police, get my wallet back, whatever. Now, I am in a cage fight. Well, I put my hands up and wait for him to give me an opportunity to knock his block off. If I fail in competition the consequence is a lot less severe than if I fail in SD. However, the same can be said about the dojo. But I have trained the same basic way for each scenario. The difference is my mindset and strategy more than training methods."
My answer is as follows:

Say for example you have raised your hands up in a non-confrontational posture in either the cage fight or the street.

In a ring fight I would advise against the open-handed kamae. If gloves are used, I would advocate a guard closer to your head. If no gloves are used, I advocate the closed-fisted kamae (like in karate).

However this is not what I would advocate for a situation in the street where potential still exists for diffusing the conflict. At this stage, an open handed guard is quite appropriate. So there is difference number one.

If the street situation were "beyond repair" - ie. an attack was inevitable, then I would advocate a guard like a karate guard. In this situation the approach would be the same as an ungloved sporting duel. But even here, differences emerge.

Supposing you've raised your hands in a defensive posture (in whatever way you happen to do it). What happens next is more interesting. If your attacker backs off in the street, you don't have to chase him or her and continue the confrontation. The issue is over. But what about the sport scenario? If you raise your hands and your opponent stays at a distance - or starts to back away, what do you do? Keep circling? Go back to your corner? At some point one of you will have to "bridge the gap" and enter what I call the melee range. It is not just a question of "walking away". If you walk, you don't win.

So the combat sports practitioner will spend a great deal of time learning to "bridge the gap". The civilian defence practitioner will do as Marcel suggested: "wait for him to give me an opportunity to knock his block off so I can then do what I need to be it run away". The science of gap-bridging and other ring dynamics are peculiar to one-on-one duels. They are not designed with the sole aim of defence. They are designed for winning a contest. This means learning how to take the fight to your opponent even when you don't have to for self-preservation. It means learning how to stay engaged even when you might otherwise have been able to walk away. It means learning techniques that are suited to both parties circling each other, looking for openings - because both parties have a competition mindset (and are taking the fight to each other). It also means not learning about other variables: hard asphalt/concrete ground, multiple opponents, weapons, etc. etc. In short, what you might do in competition (go down into a juji gatame) might not be what you'd do in the street (where a juji gatame might just give your opponent's mate(s) a chance to stomp your head).

Tactically, your "game plan" is very different. This influences not only the techniques you might choose, but even the techniques themselves. For example, I very much doubt I would ever bother with a kick to my opponent's thigh in civilian defence. Yet this is quite a useful technique in ring fighting. It is a technique suited to "gap-bridging" and "taking the fight to your opponent". It is, I believe, largely unsuited to civilian defence (it being a good tactic for wearing down an opponent over a longer period). Yes, there might be situations where you would use it. But these would be few and far between. There are many more effective ways of neutralising your opponent's incoming attack than a kick to his/her thigh.

It is important to note that I don't disregard the potential use of techniques like the thigh kick in civilian defence. It is a question of priorities. In ring sports you don't tend to use certain blows because they are less effective (due to gloves) or illegal - eye strikes or other finger thrusts being one example. In civilian defence the kick to the thigh is arguably going to be useful on occasion, but nothing like in the ring where it plays an important part.

A demonstration of the thigh kick. Note what he says about it's effect "after one or 2 kicks"; clearly something of tremendous use in the ring. But not really a prime use for civilian defence...

Some of my fellow correspondents on the Traditional Fighting Arts forum have taken me to task about the perceived "passivity" of my approach to civilian defence, arguing that "taking the attack to your opponent" is a very useful skill - in the ring and outside it.

Indeed. However the concept I'm not talking about passivity. It's about "wu-wei" - not taking any unnecessary action. There is a subtle, but significant, difference.

I live by this philosophy. There are instances where "wu-wei" means launching a pre-emptive strike; but this is only where it is a regrettable necessity. I find that most conflict can be dissipated without violence - not escalated.

I believe that most traditional eastern martial arts are built on the back of this Daoist philosophy - often misinterpreted as pacifist/quietist, when in fact it is all about lines of least resistance. Sometimes taking the fight to your opponent offers the line of least resistance / most productive outcome in resolving conflict quickly. It is dangerous to imagine however that this is a useful rule of thumb for most cases. I will elaborate on this important philosophical concept (the title of my blog!) in future articles.

A good example of civilian defence dynamics - ironically (in the context of this article) executed by a person who is obviously trained in a combat sport - boxing.

In the above video a man who is obviously trained in boxing successfully defends himself against multiple assailants, using sound civilian defence tactics and excellent technique. Note how the boxer doesn't "take the fight to his opponents" (cf. ring tactics). He is constantly backing away. This tactic alone enables him to narrow the scope of his multiple assailants so that he can deal with them more or less one at a time. Note how he uses environmental factors to assist this. Had he taken the fight to his aggressors he would probably have given them a chance to surround him and overpower him. As it is, he successfully defends himself with honour (and excellent technique).

By contrast, taking the fight to the opponent in the ring is often a good rule of thumb. In fact, you can't win by being "passive". Neither can you win by using "wu-wei" (which would question why you are in the ring in the first place). This is my point.

Accordingly I maintain that, on balance, the dynamics of ring fighting require a very different mindset from the "wu wei" approach of civilian defence. In one case you volunteer for conflict, in the other you try to diffuse it or otherwise resolve it with as little violence as possible (ie. what is necessary and no more). We can all exaggerate one perspective over another. In truth, there is room for every ring skill in civilian defence. It is however a matter of weighting. Some ring skills have a lower weighting in civilian defence; in some cases substantially so. It is wrong to say they are inapplicable - it's just that they aren't used as often or in the same circumstances.

The dynamics might even be subtle in their difference. But subtle differences can (and, I believe in this case, are) significant nonetheless.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, December 11, 2009

Extract #1 from "Essential Jo"

Here is the first of a series of extracts taken from my upcoming book "Essential Jo: Comprehensive techniques and combat 2 person drills for the Japanese 4 foot staff".

The muido/wu-wei dao jo method

We call our school “muidokan” or “wu-wei dao guan” – the “house of the way of least resistance”. This reflects both our philosophical and technical emphasis of avoiding unnecessary action by “going with the flow” and using the attacker’s force against him or her.

At the core of our jo method are a series of 20 basic techniques called “suburi”. We have retained these from aikijo (the jo method of the art of aikido) as we find them to be a comprehensive catalogue of the different deflections, strikes and sweeps that one can make using the jo.

A detailed performance of the first 5 suburi or basic jo techniques

Added to this are 9 “kumijo” (literally “an encounter with jos”) – 2 person combat drills that apply the suburi in a dynamic, effective environment. These drills are modeled on traditional kumijo from various schools but are, in the end, my own creation. They are the result of almost 30 years of martial training, combining the features of the arts to which I refer above, and many other armed and unarmed disciplines.

Importantly, unlike many other 2 person drills taught in relation to the jo and other weapons, the drills “loop”: that is to say, they can be practised continuously without end. The practical result of this is that in each drill both sides use the same sequence. The sequences are also short (between 6 to 10 movements), making them easy to learn.

The “looping” nature of these drills is not just a means of facilitating inculcation. Nor is it merely matter of learning/teaching convenience. Rather, each move has been carefully thought through so that it provides the most logical and economic answer to the attack you are facing. The drill then provides your partner with the best answer to your counter. And so it goes. Like the game of “rock, paper, scissors”, these drills cycle through the optimum responses to various attacks, “grooving” effective, reflexive responses which utilize “wu-wei” – the Daoist concept of “no unnecessary action” or the “line of least resistance”.

The 9 kumijo provide what I feel are a comprehensive set of jo skills. It is my experience that when you’ve well and truly inculcated these drills into your reflexive response, you will have an answer to virtually every type and angle of attack.

A sample of the 9 kumijo of the muidokan system

Add to this the traditional 13 count jo form (which is, in itself, a sophisticated 2 person drill) and the 31 count form (which is an exercise in learning the graceful flow of this weapon) and you have what I believe is both a complete system of civilian defence as well as an elegant art form.

The “usefulness” of jo training

But why the jo? Why should a martial artist be concerned with this weapon when there are so many others one might choose to study?

One answer to this question lies in the nature of the stick – the first and simplest of tools acquired by man – and its primeval connection to our psyche.

In our school we teach students how to handle three lengths of stick, not only for the above reason but because the stick (in whatever form) is probably the most likely object you are going to have on hand in a civilian defence scenario.

Initially we teach the baton (short stick), then the jo (medium stick), then the 6 foot staff (long stick). Of the three I feel the jo length is the most commonly found amongst everyday tools and implements: most brooms, rakes or other gardening implements are approximately the “jo length”. Furthermore the techniques of the jo translate almost as well to a walking cane or umbrella. In short, I feel that the jo is probably the most useful “stick weapon” to learn for civilian defence.

Furthermore, what is so special about the jo is that it combines the best of all worlds in terms of sticks: It is light enough to be wielded with one hand (although this is not where its primary “magic” lies). It can be used like a katana - yet it can also be flipped and used “end to end”. Unlike the 6 foot staff (known as the kon/bo), you can readily use a grip that is biased to one side (where typically Okinawan kon/bo systems tend to use an even grip at the thirds). But like the kon/bo, you can also grip it at the thirds (if circumstances require it). In short, it is a weapon for all occasions.

And like any stick, it amplifies your movements.

This is both a blessing and a curse. When you make a mistake, it is apparent for all to see. In sparring you know when you've miscalculated. You just know you're going to “cop it” and there is no escape. On the other hand when you get things right, you can look downright marvelous. Such is the nature of the jo: there are no “in betweens”. It is a hard mistress, but a generous one as well.

Finally there is a very pragmatic reason for any martial artist to train in weapons – in particular the stick variety: the tip of a stick travels much faster than the hand or foot ever can. Accordingly, training with a stick can force your hand/body/eye coordination to experience, and manage, high speed attacks. And if you can deal with fast attacks of this nature, you will be able to manage anything slower far more easily than if did not have this exposure.

The types of jo

The traditional jo in Japanese martial arts is made of hardwood. Often it is tapered at the ends, however this is not always the case.
My own beloved jo is of the non-tapered variety and is made of Japanese red oak, a comparatively light hardwood. It has withstood 2 decades of bashing and smashing and is still going strong.

For day-to-day use, I highly recommend the Chinese version of this staff – typically made of a type of bamboo called rattan. The advantage of the rattan jo is that it tends not to fail catastrophically after repeated hard contact.
On this subject I will issue this caution: Don’t go out and buy a broomstick from your local hardware shop and bring it to the dojo for practice. While it may well be more conveniently and cheaply acquired than a purpose-made jo, it provides a false (and dangerous) economy. I speak from experience. When I first opened my own dojo I went out and bought a whole pile of pine sticks for my students to use. Midway through the first lesson shards of sharpened pine started whizzing past our heads as the sticks failed in the most spectacular way. But for dumb luck one, of us would have lost an eye. So don’t mess around: buy a proper jo.

Traditional hardwood jos are made of a very dense wood that tends not to break very easily. Sometimes these jos are regularly treated with oil such as linseed to keep the wood supple and less prone to catastrophic failure.

The rattan jo is probably the safest: it doesn’t “break” after repeated impact. Rather it tends to become stringy and limp at the end of its “life”. This is both a benefit and a drawback. If you want a weapon to last a lifetime (or at least a couple of decades as my Japanese red oak jo has) then the rattan jo isn’t going to cut it. A rattan jo will only last a matter of months (assuming regular, frequent training with “stick on stick” impact).

But on the other hand, rattan jos are relatively inexpensive compared to their hardwood alternatives: they can be anywhere up to 10 times cheaper. Just don’t try to treat your rattan jo with linseed or any other oil; I’ve seen people try it and the result isn’t pretty (unless you like a stick that swells like a dead fish).

Rattan jos are also suitably light, something I see as another “winning feature”. Most people I know start with a heavy jo in the mistaken belief that it gives them more “firepower”. In explaining their preference they also cite the fact that they want to develop their arm and hand strength.

On the “power” side, I’ll make this observation based on years of practical experience with the jo and other stick weapons: the speed of your stick provides the major component of the force applied by it – and this speed more than off-sets any lack of weight. Conversely, while a heavy stick might pack a lot of “power”, this is of little use against a faster, more easily manipulated weapon. You’ll simply be “beaten to the punch”.

As for the idea that you should use a heavy jo to build strength, my advice is that your time is far better spent acquiring skill than risking repetitive strain injury with a jo that is too heavy. If you want to build muscle, go to the gym.

In the end it is a matter of taste: I have my old Japanese red oak jo (which I lovingly reserve for solo work and the occasional hard training). For day-to-day use I have a rattan jo. When it wears out, I’ll buy another.

To summarise, I strongly endorse buying a proper, lightweight jo – specifically a rattan one – for reasons of both safety and practicality.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Memories of sensei: Part 2

Continued from Part 1:

I mentioned in my previous post that my teacher, Bob Davies, is an "old-school" teacher. I'm not sure how he teaches nowadays, but certainly my early years of training with him were underlined with a kind of discipline that would probably meet with grave consternation in today's Australia.

Well do I remember his shinai stick (a split bamboo sword used in kendo) - affectionately named "Suzuki No. 2"1 - which he used as a "motivator" during heavy sessions. Students who were flagging would, without warning, receive a crack across the back or the legs - whereupon they would "miraculously" find a second wind.

As I have said, this kind of disciplining method might be frowned upon today in the bulk of the developed world, but in the South Africa I knew, it was de rigueur. Caning was quite commonplace in schools for any number of "offences" ranging from not completing homework to "wagging"/"bunking"/"playing hookey". In fact, Bob's shinai caused more startle than it did pain - school caning was in a completely different league.

However this didn't stop some of the students complaining. I remember a fellow named Mark who, upon receiving a "motivational smack" across his legs during knuckle push-ups, whined under his breath: "I don't want to do this anymore." I did note that his push-ups had improved substantially as he was saying this.

I was never terribly concerned about Suzuki No. 2. I was more petrified of the potential intensity of the lesson. Sensei Bob had a knack for making us do things that seemed impossible (but in fact were not). Like the time I walked into the dojo and he said: "Right - one hundred front kicks." Easy, I thought. Then we swapped legs. Still easy. It was only when he said: "Next person counting!" that I realised precisely what we were in for.

Two hours and about 2500 kicks (front and roundhouse) later I eased myself down the long flight of stairs, legs wobbling uncontrollably like jelly. Sensei Bob explained: "It is easy to do a small number of any technique well - but it is only when you're fully exhausted that your true technique comes out."

He was right. Moreover repetition beyond fatigue can provide invaluable kinaesthetic lessons. Such fatigue forces you to move more efficiently and utlise only the muscles that are needed. Extra movement (bobbing up and down), extra tension in the back and shoulders... these sorts of things are abandoned by the body in its search for more economical movement - it will do anything to make the task easier. Of course the easiest thing for the body to do is stop - or become sloppy. But the latter was never an option with Sensei Bob lurking over your shoulder, Suzuki No. 2 in hand...

Occasionally I will take my own students through a "spirit" workout (minus the motivational shinai stick). I'm also a lot kinder in another crucial way - I usually tell them what's in store. Sensei Bob had the habit of leaving you in suspense (more like terror). I have the feeling this was part of the training: when you know that you have x number of repetitions you approach the task with considerably greater ease. Not knowing when the pain is going to end is what adds real stress. But, as I'm sure Lao Shi Bob would say today, learning to deal with these unknowns is part and parcel of making a good martial artist. This kind of "spirit training" was and is integral to his methodology of training warriors.

Once I remember he opened the lesson by talking about spirit training and its role in developing mental toughness. His foreboding message left us quivering in fearful anticipation. It took a while before I realised that we were already mid-way through the lesson. In fact, he talked for all but the last 15 minutes - after which we finally did some (brutally hard) exercise. But when you know there is only a quarter of an hour to go, you don't mind. I suspect this was, in itself, part of Sensei Bob's lesson for the night; don't sweat it until you need to. We'd practically pooped our pants for no reason.

I described elsewhere some of the spirit sessions we endured. In particular you will note my article: "忍 - Endurance and Spirit Training" and my series of articles recalling the Decadal Gashuku (starting with "Decadal Gashuku Part 1: The Foreboding"). Or for that matter the article "Running with Bob"...

From those articles you'll see a common theme: how fear of something can be much worse than the actual event (note in particular my article "Decadal Gashuku Part 2: Ten Blind Masseuses"). This is a lesson that I have learned well. I can honestly say that my ability to tolerate discomfort has been greatly extended from that which it would otherwise have been. I have put this increased tolerance to good use in emergencies and other times of physical or emotional stress.

What I have learned is that pain is finite; it exists for a time, then it is gone. Once it is gone you have no memory of it. You remember being in pain - but you can't actually conjure the sensation (as you might recall sights and sounds or even smells and tastes). This is, I think, part of the body's protective reflex: if we could all conjure up the sensation of pains previously suffered we would almost certainly all be emotional wrecks. For example, I have often wondered whether if women could accurately recall the sensation of giving birth, they would even contemplate having a second or third child!

But I'd like to go back to my earlier remark about achieving "impossible tasks". While the Decadal Gashuku provided some examples of this, it wasn't until Lao Shi Bob's 1996 visit to Western Australia that I learned some of my most valuable lessons in "spirit training". The "final frontier" as far as I'm concerned, is doing without food - or water - while training. The latter is, understandably, dangerous and must be approached with considerable caution, but we did, at one point, do a 24 hour "waterless fast".

Then later during his visit he held what is infamously remembered as the "Pine Cone Gashuku" at the Shannon National Park deep in our South West. On this camp we went on a 24 hour fast (water was permitted) - despite 8 hours of training per day.

On the second day we were allowed to eat only uncooked vegetables - 3 different ones that I got to choose. I chose the heartiest, most "carbohydrate-rich" vegetables that sprang to mind: carrots, cabbage and beetroot. The latter choice was to have quite startling effects.

On the day we ate the beetroot, Lao Shi Bob took us down to a field for rolls. From a distance one might have been forgiven for thinking it was a field of lush green grass. It was only when you came closer that you noticed the rocky ground, punctuated occasionally by the odd tuft of rough kikuyu. We were told to perform forward rolls, end on end, for half a kilometre - then return doing backward rolls.

I emerged largely unscathed; a few bruises and a bit of nausea didn't stop me coming in a close second to Lao Shi Bob's visiting student, the "wunderkind" Nick "The Beast" Nell. But, upon completing the exercise I turned to survey a field of puking, ashen-faced students. And of course the field had, somewhat dramatically, become littered with piles of vomited, blood-red beetroot. It looked for all the world like some ancient battle scene.

The "pine cone" reference I made earlier relates to Bob's chosen motivational tactic on that camp. Whenever we were flagging or failing to remember the intricacies of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu bokken/jo drills, he would make us run for pine cones. By the end of the 6 days we'd assembled quite a high pyramid. Perhaps it is still there!

This visit by Lao Shi Bob in late 1996 was to be my last training with him. It was shortly afterwards that my brother Nenad and I decided to "do our own thing". Why? There comes a time when one must leave the nest. Lao Shi Bob's unique training methodology, his particular emphases and his chosen direction (in particular his studies of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu) did not accord with our own desires at the time. It is very hard to follow in someone else's footsteps for one's whole life. We had followed his for 16 years - and now we felt it was time to make our own "fresh tracks".

The intervening years have been challenging. The words of Chojun Miyagi after the death of his teacher Kanryo Higaonna come to mind: he felt he was groping his way along an unlit road. For some time I felt the same. However it has been a productive journey and one I wouldn't trade for any other. And this journey has indirectly led me to where I am now: an inner circle student of Chen Yun-Ching Shifu (shifu is another term for "teacher"). In this capacity I am exploring arts that I find enormously satisfying; moreover I am appreciating the continuum that these arts constitute with my karate and other arts. I feel I am inching ever closer to the holy grail of a unified, internally consistent, relativistic syallabus (see my article "My quest for martial the holy grail").

Chen Shifu has indicated to me that my status as his inner circle student in no way precludes me from training with other instructors and I am grateful for this. His own sense of security in his art (the art of his father, the legendary Chen Pan-Ling) is quite impressive.

So I look forward to the day when I will once again see my first sensei and train with him. It almost came to pass that we would train side-by-side at one of Chen Shifu's workshops. This would have marked the first time I would train in this capacity with my former teacher. Unfortunately, Lao Shi Bob had other plans - notably his 88 temple pilgrimage to the island of Shikoku, a three month trek that ranks amongst the toughest in the world.

However even if we do, by chance, come to train side-by-side, I rather suspect it will be impossible for me to defer to him as anything other than "sensei".


1. The shinai stick known as "Suzuki No. 1" had pride of place in the Cape Town dojo of Sensei Bob's teacher, the late Hanshi Denis St. John Thomson.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Memories of sensei: Part 1

Recently my karate sensei - Bob Davies - asked me to write a "warts and all" reflective testimonial of my experiences with him.

I have previously recounted some of those experiences, but I thought I'd give a fuller account. With regard to the "warts", I'll make this opening remark: every martial arts teacher is a human being with foibles and idiosyncrasies, and these are generally neither here nor there when it comes to defining the sensei as an important figure. Rather, what often distinguishes the sensei is the significant role he or she plays in shaping not only the student's martial arts technique, but how the student perceives and relates to the world generally.

The archetypal sensei figure might be something of a cliche nowadays, but this phenomenon is nonetheless a reality for many people.

Students of the martial arts can often idolise their teachers, placing unrealistic expectations on them. I certainly did this in my early years of training. Getting to know my sensei better might well have "burst the bubble" of my unrealistic perceptions, however in the longer term it has not negated my respect for him.

So who is Bob Davies? I'll start with my first impressions which I rather suspect are cognate with those of many, many other students over the years.

It was 16 February 1981 when my brother and I first walked into his dojo in Cato Street, downtown Durban. I recall walking up the dark, art-deco stairwell, the smell of musty air mixing with the chemical solvents from the surrounding industry.

Then there was the smell of the dojo itself, which accosted you as you as soon as you stepped into the foyer. I've noticed that every long-term traditional dojo has this particular scent; the stale, sweetly pungent ghost of honest and diligent sweat soaked year upon year into the floorboards. And on that particular hot, summer night, this smell was radiating like the heat from a fat wicket-keeper in the mid-day sun.

We had arrived after the class; only 2 students remained on the floor practising the kata seiyunchin. Both were senior black belts - Johan Steyn and Evan "Hige" Savvas ("hige" being the Japanese word for moustache and referencing Evan's thick Grecian mo').

My brother and I watched, transfixed, as Johan and Evan moved in perfect synchrony, dropping into shiko dachi with an uppercut/backfist/groin strike combinination, and emitting a blood-curdling, extended kiai to match. We both knew then and there that this was something we wanted to do for the rest of our lives.

When Evan came off the floor to greet us, his threadbare gi translucent with sweat, we naturally assumed he was the instructor. It was only as we were leaving that we encountered Sensei Bob1 reentering the dojo foyer. My instant impression was of a distinguished man sporting an incongruously dirty white belt. I recall thinking: "Gee - this guy's been at it for a while with no progress". Of course his Tokkaido black belt was one of the variety that wears easily with age - and given that he had been training since the '60s his belt had had ample time to wear off almost all of its black exterior.

Needless to say, it didn't take long to correct the misapprehension. Bob Sensei has an uncanny ability to fill the room with his presence; his genial, square-jawed smile and steely gaze can make you feel like you're the only other person in the room. He is, quite simply, arresting and disarming (both useful qualities in martial arts).

Such is his charisma that throughout my studies with him I would routinely be enthralled for the entire lesson. And his lessons were always delivered at 110% intensity and commitment. There is simply nothing half-baked about the man.

In my own martial arts career I have strived to emulate his exact, near-perfect technique; the crispness of his delivery, the hammer-like focus of his blows and the effortless adherence to text-book form. Moreover I have strived to match his ability to absorb and retain (with the highest fidelity) every new form I have learned, from karate, to Filipino arnis, to aikido, to Japanese and Okinawan kobudo, and the external and external Chinese martial arts. Whether I have achieved this in some small part is a matter of conjecture; the bar he sets is very high. All I can say is that I continue to try.

I have, in my 25 years of teaching, also copied aspects of his teaching style. Some of this has been deliberate, but most of it has been subconscious. One example would be his typically voluminous instruction: Sensei Bob has a voice that cuts through the air like a knife through butter. It carries into every corner with equal volume, pricking every student's ears as if he were shouting into each of them. The only time the volume changes is when he kiais - then it goes up a few more notches still.

Bob Davies demonstrating the kata seipai in the mid-80s. Note the focus on his blows - and his kiais!

For most of my teaching career I have taught in this manner, cultivating my own voice in a way that is reasonably close to his. As a consequence, in recent times I've found myself rapidly losing my voice part-way through the class. I've now come to the conclusion that, for whatever reason (nodules?) I can no longer teach this way. Just the other day I conducted one of my new "quiet" lessons and found that people listened even more closely to what I was saying. One student (Lewis) remarked: "My it does seem much quieter tonight"!

I also routinely quote Sensei Bob's many thought-provoking and insightful comments or observations. These pithy sayings are too numerous to recount fully, but I shall give you some examples:

When I was graded to green belt I waited for almost 2 months without hearing of the result. This was a frequent occurrence and I guess you could say this was one of the "warts" Sensei Bob had (has?). I eventually plucked up the courage to speak to him about it, but I thought I'd approach it obliquely lest I offend him. So I knocked on his office door and said: "Sensei - I wonder if I could see the comments you made on my grading sheet so that I can see the sorts of things I need to work on." He looked at me with his trademark half-smile, one eyebrow raised, reached up to a shelf and took out a brand-new green belt and threw it at me. "Danny," he said, "never pick from the elbow".

Another favourite saying of his was: "Things have a habit of happening." It was usually said in the context of awaiting an uncertain future and it has always given me comfort. I have understood it to mean that events will overtake your present concerns, often overshadowing or displacing them entirely. Certainly this has been my experience over the longer period. We have a set of worries which assume a multitude of variables - many of which are impermanent. It is quite a conceit to assume that everything will stay the same except for the one circumstance that concerns you at any given moment.

Sensei Bob might have been charismatic and genial, but he was also a hard task-master. He handed out compliments very rarely and expected the highest standards at all times. I recall sitting opposite him in his office one night (I occasionally made the mistake of dropping in to chat after a lesson, knowing that this would mean a departure delayed by up to 2 hours) and we started discussing one of my seniors - a mature woman who was overweight (I'll call her "Susan" - not her real name). Sensei Bob said to me: "You know Susan don't you?"
"Sure - the generously built lady," I offered by way of description (in case Sensei Bob was thinking of another Susan).
"Let's not beat about the bush Danny," he replied. "She's fat." Sensei Bob told me that he'd given Susan an ultimatum: lose a certain amount of weight or quit. He told her that she had reached a point where the obesity was hampering her progress. I never saw Susan again.

So Sensei Bob was/is nothing if not uncompromising. He sets his standards high even if they make little "business sense" in terms of keeping a paying student.

He gave a different ultimatum to one of my other seniors, a very tough female black belt named Julie. In my observation she always seemed to give of her best - but this clearly wasn't enough. Sensei Bob told her that she'd been training at 3/4 of her potential when he wanted 4/4. If she wanted to continue in his dojo she would have to prove herself. He would accept her back only once she had attained a black belt in the shotokan school down the road run by Rob Ferrier - a fearsome figure whose dojo was regarded as one of the toughest in South Africa. In fact, Julie did just that - and a couple of years later she was back on our dojo floor...

Luckily I was never faced with such an ultimatum. Perhaps it was because he could see I was giving my best. More likely he knew better ways of getting under my skin.

I recall one time where we were gearing up for the Natal provincial festival - an open competition in which karateka from all over South Africa would attend. When the Saturday pre-selections came up, I called my sensei up to explain that due to the (very hard) lesson on Thursday my leg muscles had stiffened up to the point where I could barely walk. After a 15 minute chat he'd convinced me to come down to the hall and see how I felt after a warm-up. Indeed the warm-up, together with the attendant adrenaline, convinced me to take part. Despite the fact that the opening bout loosened my front teeth (courtesy of a karateka from Johannesburg who had at least 2 years more experience than I and a decade on my 16 years), I found myself feeling freer than I had for days. Sensei had been right. And he no doubt knew that this would make any subsequent convincing a great deal easier.

Try this for example: I rang Sensei Bob one month out from my final school exams and said that I felt I was falling behind; I regretfully told him I was going to stop training until after the exams so I could concentrate on my studies. "Okay Danny, if that's how you feel," he said with a noticeable tone of disappointment. The more I tried to explain the necessity for taking the time off, the more he sounded unconvinced. By the end of the conversation he'd talked me into training in each available class of the week - including assisting him with the children's class on Saturday mornings. To top it off, in the week before exams started I participated in a regional gashuku (an intensive course with early morning and evening classes for a full week). I not only did this but I also managed to top my school and get into the top 5% of South African school results.

But for all the inspiration and motiviation Sensei Bob gave me, he would also take me to the brink of quitting on many occasions. I've said before that he was a hard task-master; "old-school" is how some people describe him. But I shall explain what I mean by this next time...


1. Japanese (or far eastern) convention dictates placing a title such as "Sensei" (teacher) after the teacher's name - eg. "Bob Sensei", however we always followed the reverse (Western) convention.

Since about 1986 we have called Sensei Bob "Lao Tze" (Wade Giles) or "Lao Shi" (Pinyin) meaning "teacher" in Mandarin. This is as a consequence of his studies in Taiwan of the Chinese internal arts of xingyi, bagua and taiji. Again, we call him "Lao Tze Bob" rather than "Bob Lao Tze".

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Making movements "smaller"

In my previous article "Abandoning form: the paradox of the shrinking martial art" I discuss how movements become smaller as you progress - until ultimately the form you have learned is abandoned altogether.

Recently this approach has been suggested to me as the reason for the use of "koshi" - and by this I refer to a preloading/telegraphing hip action - in the kata naihanchi. I've previously noted my disagreement with this way of performing that kata in my article "Whole lotta shakin': hip use and naifunchin".

One example that might be offered in support of this kind of "koshi" in naihanchi/naifunchin is that of 70 year old Higa Sensei who shows a remarkably efficient and effective hip use in the following clip, only to be shown teaching his students the kind of "koshi" with which I disagree. Surely this is evidence of the effectiveness of this method? Isn't Higa just doing a "smaller" movement of the hips, something his students have yet to master?

70 something Higa Sensei showing remarkably powerful contextual hip use

I respectfully disagree that this is what is happening in the naihanchi practice. The students in Higa's video are preloading, where Higa is not. I don't think the Higa's free-form hip use is a "smaller version" of the more basic naihanchi. Rather, I think they are subtly, but significantly, different.

I think it is despite the telegraphing/preloading in their naihanchi practice that Higa's students might one day achieve his hip use. This is because they will have to unlearn pre-loading/telegraphing. It is not a question of "making the preload smaller" or "smaller telegraphing".

I've said before that I don't think martial arts kata/xing/forms are about "power generation". They are about putting movements in a dynamic setting. I think the idea that naihanchi kata, among others, is about "hip mobilisation" and learning "power generation" is a red herring and obfuscates a multitude of sins inherent in pre-loading/telegraphing - it does so by diverting attention to the mistaken holy grail of "power". Kata is not about maximising "power" - whether by via hip use or any other single-focus theory (eg. the ITF "sine wave theory"). It is about contextual technique - including contextual hip use. It is about moving from one sequence to another. It is about conditioning. It is about a lot of things, none of which justify inculcating (through endless repetitions) something that is patently dangerous; pre-loading not only takes time, it also telegraphs your intention. You should never, ever do this in kata. If you want to pre-load, do it in a static drill like makiwara where there is no illusion that you will use the technique in that form against an attacker. Such exercises are for isolation - and pre-loading is only justified in isolation exercises (not in a series of connected movements). In this regard consider the following video of some hip drills by Taira Sensei of the Jundokan:

Find more videos like this on International Gojuryu Development Society

Taira Sensei of the Jundokan showing some of his hip isolation drills

Morio Higaonna is a perfect example: he never doesn't do "koshi" in his basics or kata, although he takes an almighty pre-load against the makiwara (where he is isolating "power").

Note Morio Higaonna's makiwara strikes at about 6:21 of the above video and you'll see he uses plenty of hip action - preloading even - this is entirely appropriate against a stationary target, but not for dynamic contexts

I've had friends who do this koshi stuff complain that when they trained with Higaonna he told them off "for using the hip". No - he told them off for pre-loading. He doesn't pre-load in his kata - ever. But does anyone doubt that he has efficient koshi (and by this I mean contextually appropriate and highly efficient koshi)? Ironically I've trained with many of his adherents over the years who doggedly try to match his power by shaking and shuddering like a pneumatic drill. Higaonna doesn't do that. They ought to take careful note: he is powerful because he is efficient - not because his energy is being reabsorbed or because it is flying off in every direction but towards the target.

I think the whole concept of "koshi" (in the sense of pre-loading/telegraphing) is now widespread where it was originally practised in only one or 2 dojo (eg. Yuchoku Higa's or in the Yamane Ryu kobudo school). I think it has become popular and has infiltrated a large percentage of karate schools that didn't practise it previously, primarily because it is impressive to the viewer and the practitioner; it not only looks like you're "powerful" - you feel that way too.

But in much the same way that a bullet doesn't shake and shudder until it hits its target, most "air techniques" shouldn't feel or look powerful until they've landed. I say this imagining the perspective of a layperson who won't necessarily think good technique looks as "powerful" as the more obviously "powerful" bad technique. An experienced karateka, on the other hand, can see good kime even if the technique does not land on a target. The kime is discernible as the sudden stop (with a very fast deceleration) - maximising applied force over a minimal period (impulse).

Put another way, good kime is discernible by many variables, including sight and sound. But these are subtle queues. They aren't nearly as obvious as the hip shuddering of some naihanchi performances - where the "power" of air techniques is made discernible mostly because it has been reabsorbed into the practitioner and is thereby amplified.

I always think of the world's top Japanese swordsmen. Their katana with slice through the air with a deft, sudden, decisive movement and stop "dead". You'll hear the swish, see the control. The body is relaxed and there isn't a lot of obvious muscular tension in the shoulders etc. Only the barest essential muscles are tensed. A beginner can grunt, use extreme muscular strength etc. and look and feel like he or she is exerting far more force. The target will reveal the difference; usually a bent sword blade or a half-cut rather than a cut through. If the student is "feeling" his or her force, it just means that this force isn't being transferred into the target; it is being reabsorbed into the practitioner.

Learning this efficient movement is not a question of starting with preloading then learning "smaller movement". For many karateka I believe it is sadly a question of unlearning bad habits and replacing them with an understanding of the cues as to what is really "powerful" (in an applied sense) and what is not. As I say, I believe that it is despite this "red herring" that karateka learn to develop contextual hip movement. They end up abandoning pre-loading, not modifying it...

I agree wholeheartedly with the principle that movements become smaller as you become more senior. I just don't see the naihanchi practise with koshi as forming any part of that concept. As Higa does his punching stepping you'll notice that he loads contextually during movement. He never wobbles back to load, giving his opponent the twin advantages of extra time to react and advanced notice of his intention.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic