Friction in the Dojo: How It Can Move You Forward

Friction. . .

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It can be the thing that helps drive you forward. . .

It can be the thing that slows you down. . .

As yellow belts, my friend Tracy and I had a silent competition against each other.

Our Sensei told us that the only person we should compete against was ourselves.

“Os! Sensei!”

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In lip service, like so many still do, we professed to one another and our instructors that this was always our goal, to simply be better than we were the day before.

A selfish attempt to be more idyllic than the other.

When we stood next to each other in line, our eyes would always glance to the other.

Watching, sensing, checking. . .

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“Is her horse stance lower than mine?”

“Did she do more push-ups than I?”

“Did the Sensei compliment her and not me?”

As these thoughts and insecurities arose in me, I later learned that she thought the same.

It was the unspoken friction that propelled us forward.

For everything she did well, I was committed to doing it. . .

better,

faster,

stronger,

than her.

And with that, Tracy would double her efforts in return.

In the presence of one another, our efforts were exponentiated. Our skill improved through the silent desire to be the best in the dojo, better than the other.

But. . .

One day, Tracy stopped attending classes. So, I was left  alone to to find another “Frienemy” to silently compete with.

As the years passed, there would be others. . .

Watching, sensing, checking. . .

Better, stronger, faster. . .

Wash, rinse, repeat. . .

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But, they would all eventually leave as well.

By the time I achieved my Shodan, there was no one left to compete with.

The Senpai above me were so far ahead, there was no competition there.

And, my students were not close enough yet to truly challenge me (although, I look forward to that day).

Without this traction, I could feel myself slowing down.

For the first time in my life, I had no one to compete with but myself.

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Where I once targeted my critical eye on those around me, I was now forced to point it at the one person I could neither defeat nor be defeated by: myself.

It was in that moment I understood what my Sensei was getting at when he said, “You should only compete with yourself.”

There is, of course, value in silently competing with those around you, as a type momentary motivation to challenge your physicality and fitness.

But, in the long run, you should define your success on your own terms. Each individual in the dojo has their own unique objectives. Sometimes people pursue martial arts for fitness, others for camaraderie, or just because they find it fascinating.

Would you want to compete against someone who is purely interested in the history of karate when your interest is biomechanics?

Of course not.

In this sense, it’s not so much about competing, but defining your unique objectives. Give yourself the recognition that you deserve. Observe the distance you’ve gone to achieve your goals. Have enough self-awareness to ask “Can I do better?” and to answer “I will do better”.

Now, when I step in line and look in the mirror, I sometimes see the gawky, awkward, teenage, yellow belt I once was and I wonder. . .

“Is her stance lower than mine?”

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Being A Good Uke; It’s Harder Than You Think

Have you ever watched your Sensei choose one individual over and over again to be his Uke and thought, “Why not me!?”

In any seminar or class, you’ll find the head Sensei will consistently pick the same individuals to work with when demonstrating techniques. I think many of us would love to “volunteer as tribute” and feel the glory of being at the front of the dojo with your head Instructor!

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But, there are many reasons why some people are chosen more than others.

From time to time, an individual is chosen because of their size. A Sensei may choose the largest person in the room—usually to prove a point about technique vs. strength/size.

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Sometimes an individual is chosen because of flexibility, so that the Sensei can execute the full extent of an armbar or leg lock without the individual tapping.

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But usually, one is chosen as a demonstration Uke because they’re amongst the best in the room.

You would think that letting the teacher hurt you would be easy, that any dumbie can do it!

But, not just any dumbie, a very skilled dumbie. . .

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To be a good Uke and especially an Uke for demonstrations, you literally have to know what you’re getting yourself into. By that I mean you have to be familiar with many, if not all, the possible positions the Sensei may put you in, sometimes without the Sensei even telling you what she/he will be applying. So, unless you have a crystal ball with you, you either have to have superb body awareness and biomechanical knowledge or completely memorized the curriculum.

The Sensei, like Goldilocks, is looking for someone that is not too hard or too soft.

They’re looking for an individual that will

  1. Comply and restrict at just the right moments and with just the right intensity
    • Nothing (and I do mean NOTHING!) is more annoying to a head Sensei than a Uke who anticipates a technique and gives an unrealistic reaction, like moving before the technique was actually applied, OR actively resists when the Sensei is demonstrating. The key here is to respond, not anticipate, the Uke must have a complete understanding of the intent of every technique that they are subject to and respond accordingly with enough resistance for the demonstration to run smoothly and realistically.
  2. Set a good technical example when they return a technique
    • The Uke must know how to receive, counter and execute techniques with the same speed, power and skill as the Sensei applying it. If the Uke does not adequately perform a technique, the lesson the Sensei is trying to teach could be lost and the entire group could end up doing the technique, counter or sequence completely wrong! (No pressure or anything!)
  3. Most importantly, make the head Sensei look good!
    • As an Uke, it is your responsibility for the demonstration to look as good as your body will physically allow because when you are asked to present with the Sensei (especially at a seminar), you have become a representative of that Sensei, an extension of their name/style.

AND

The Uke must do all of this while being submitted to various degrees of pain, being put in the most awkward of awkward positions and essentially getting the crap kicked out of them!

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So, the next time you ask “Why not me!?” remember we often overlook the skill of the Uke. Instead, concentrate on the small details the Uke demonstrates because getting the crap kicked out of you isn’t as easy as you think.

The Web Master: Spinning Concepts with Sensei Paul Lopresti – Part 2

It’s better to have a tool and not need it than need a tool and not have it.

This point summarizes the necessity of adding grappling to our fighting repertoire. And as I mentioned in the first part of this series based on my learning experience with Sensei Paul Lopresti, grappling is a common aspect of self-defence overlooked by many karate practitioners. I find this especially frustrating because so many kata techniques are applicable on the ground, as illustrated in my previous discussion of kokutsu dachi and knee on belly position.

Sensei Paul Seminar-Group

Another standing technique found in karate and other striking arts is the hiza geri (knee). If someone is properly executing a hiza geri with all their body weight moving into the technique and the hips driving forward, one can very much see the mechanical similarity of the hips in shiko-walk.

The shiko-walk is a common grappling technique used in a double leg take down or the knee cutter guard pass to kesa-gatami, in which you press your knee onto the inside of the opponent’s thigh.

With that said, Sensei Paul spun further applications of hiza-geri through his presentation of a ground drill of his own creation, completely committed to the bottom position, called Ura Ne-Waza. Based on my understanding, the creation of the drill was a critique of common grappling practices. Most BJJ clubs teach grappling from a superior top position and rarely address ways of being successful while on one’s back.

The inspiration for ura ne-waza was one of Sensei Paul’s female students. She constantly found herself on her back against bigger opponents—the type of opponent a woman is most likely to find herself against. With ura ne-waza, students can protect themselves against larger opponents by using various restraining techniques and submissions, like the guillotine or kimura, from their back.

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One position in the drill is called “knee in guard,” which uses the exact same body mechanics of a standing knee strike or shiko-walk.

In this position you stick to the opponent’s body by:

  • Under-hooking the left arm with your right arm and grabbing the opponents right wrist with your left hand
  • Pressing your left knee into the crevice of the elbow and bracing the bottom of the left foot on the right side of the opponent’s hip.

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In doing the “knee in guard” position, you prevent the opponent from attempting a series of punches towards the head. It also acts as a potential transition into a multitude of submissions, such as omo-plata or the kimura.

Through these controlling positions, I learned that as the opponent struggles like prey within a web, you have a better sense of where they will turn next and can capitalize on their position.

Also, the hip rotation used to generate power in all striking techniques, strongly emphasized in Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo Jutsu, is another way to create space to escape holds and to transition into other submissions on the ground.

For example, in transitioning to the guard when the opponent is in a mount, explosive hip movement is paramount to accomplishing an escape. This movement is comparable to expanding into any standing striking technique. The feet plant on the floor as the arms push the opponent’s knee out, and one side of the hip drives forward while the other side retracts back, just like a gyaku-tsuki.

Furthermore, the strength of hip and core rotation is a necessity for all transitional movements. The ability to interweave a series of movements, such as how you move into your arm bar or your kimura from the guard, determines your success. Whenever there is movement, there is potential for space, and with space comes the potential for the opponent to escape or counter your efforts.

As I learned while going through Sensei Paul’s arm bar and kimura series, knowing how to create and limit space is fundamental. In the arm bar and kimura sets, Sensei Paul taught several different ways of getting into these techniques. The web of fighting starts when we are given several different options from a single position. In doing so, we learned to recognize specific situations that could allow us to transition from the guard to our desired submission. As we moved from the guard to our submission, we integrated a hip swivel to adjust angles and isolate the joint we were attacking, necessitating that we rotate our hips just like in our usual standing practice.

Hip Swivel

Throughout the seminar, Sensei Paul not only demonstrated his understanding of the body mechanics of ground techniques, but also demonstrated his ability as a teacher and coach. Sensei Paul taught individuals of varying backgrounds, such as BJJ, wrestling and karate. He explained techniques in a way that could be understood by individuals of any martial arts background. He is both patient and intellectual in his approach to teaching a group or an individual.

I feel we benefitted the most from Sensei Paul’s instruction in two ways. The first was through rolling. At the end of the seminar, we were given the opportunity to experiment with the variety of techniques we learned via two-minute grappling sessions. While rolling, we were told to go at different intensity levels, for example 60 percent, so everyone could practice in a safe and fun manner.

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The other opportunity we were given to gain knowledge was to ask questions. In Sensei Paul’s seminars, he gives everyone the opportunity to ask him about their experiences, what worked for them or didn’t work for them in the past as well as in the rolling session. In this way, Sensei Paul can tweak the techniques to fit the individual style, strengths and size of the student.

Although most karate practitioners do not pursue ground techniques, their standing technical knowledge operates on the same body mechanics as ground techniques.

You can observe the connective thread between standing and ground techniques through:

  • Kokutsu dachi and knee on belly position
  • Knee strike in comparison to both shiko-walk and “knee in guard” position
  • Hip rotation while doing a hip escape from the mount or transitioning to an arm bar from the guard

The body, of course, can only move in so many ways. We should expect that how we generate power standing can be applied the same way on the ground. Yet many karate practitioners continue to turn a blind eye to the importance of ground work and grappling,  even when common sense dictates that the principles of physics and body mechanics are applicable no matter what position someone is in.

The concepts found in our standing repertoire cannot be completely understood unless we recall karate’s true purpose: self-defence. To claim the art as self-defence and not address all the Habitual Acts of Physical Violence causes many to get stuck in one corner of their web. True martial artists must explore the concepts found in their systems with a critical gaze to see how the threads of their own practices connect with all other styles.

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Old Woman Cries In Her Sleeve

I once heard a former student say, “I’ve paid hundreds of dollars on Karate. Spent hours of my time practicing. Working through injuries . . . and, for WHAT!?”

The only answer I could come up with is. . . something you should love.

I don’t know about anyone else, but over the short 14 years I’ve been pursuing the martial arts, my expenditure is probably in the hundred of thousands. I’ve spent hundreds of hours practicing, even through multiple injuries for no other reason than I love doing it.

So, when it came to me going to my final destination to train with Sensei McCarthy on his 2015 tour, although I felt like an old woman, there was no crying in my sleeve.

Virginia, October 9th-12th, 2015

At this event in Ashburn, Virginia, hosted by Sensei Darrin Johnson at Ashburn Martial Arts, Sensei McCarthy focused on Hakutsuru Tsuki-naka Ken [aka Chuan Xin Zhong Quan/白鹤穿心中拳 in Chinese].

Tsuki-Naka Ken

Tsuki-naka is the hardest kata I’ve had to learn—not because of its length or because the techniques in it are especially difficult; there are other kata that are far more difficult in those respects (Hakutsuru and Kusanku come to mind).

I believe the reason I found Tsuki-Naka challenging was for no other reason than mental and physical fatigue.

While learning this Yong-Chun based kata I overcame the challenges that accompany excessive travel and training in three ways:

1) Details

2) Zanshin

3) Teaching

Details

When you feel walls of exhaustion hit you, when your body hurts and your mind feels like it will burst with knowledge, concentrate on the details of your technique.

In Tsuki-naka, the movements have elements of dynamic tension and breathing, like those found commonly in Goju Ryu kata, combined with elegant and flowing movements of Chuan Fa.

Sensei McCarthy Applies Eagle Seizes His Prey

It was by focusing on getting these aspects of the kata just right, as well as its footwork, that helped me to keep going even if I wasn’t at my best.

Some may recognize this as an example of meditative state of isshin, single point concentration. For those unfamiliar with this term, isshin is to encompass all of one’s being into a single moment and once that moment has passed to release it.

In other words, the salvation from my practice was more mentally intense practice.

Zanshin

As is commonly expected with Sensei McCarthy’s Koryu Uchinadi seminars, there were a lot of two-person drills and kata applications. This held true with our in-depth analysis of applications for Tsuki-naka.

One movement in the kata includes crossing your arms like a genie and pulling your arms in opposite directions, a solo representation of one of the chokes straight out of our Shime-waza exercise: the rear-naked choke.

Mark Donohoe Applies Choke

Another application for a gyaku-zenkutsu dachi with a gedan barai and uchi uke, was a simple standing arm bar.

Sensei Nick in Gyaku Zenkutsu Dachi

Zanshin or general awareness was key for success in working with partners while in Virginia. Working through my injuries, it was important to pay close attention to how my body was feeling and adapt my training to ensure that I could still have a great learning experience and stay safe.

Communicating with the partners I worked with was a huge factor as well. One of the best things about walking into a Koryu Uchinadi Seminar is every one is really nice and willing to adjust so that each participant can have a positive training experience.

Teaching

Another way of overcoming my injuries in a seminar setting was taking the time to help others.

Once I had a good understanding of the techniques being taught, such as the takedowns, locks and chokes Sensei demonstrated, I took the time to assist participants who might need help learning many of the new techniques Sensei McCarthy introduced.

Sensei McCarthy Applies Ankle Lock

By doing this, I didn’t have to repeat the techniques as often, reducing my chances of aggravating my injury. At the same time, this helped me to gain a better conceptual understanding of the exercise at hand.

Old Woman Cries In Her Sleeve

There is a movement in many Koryu Uchinadi drills and Kata that we call old woman cries in her sleeve.

As I mentioned earlier, with my accumulated injuries and mental exhaustion, I very much felt like an old woman. And although there were no tears shed, I do feel sorrowful that my journey training with Sensei McCarthy was coming to an end.

There are so many other elements of going to seminars than just learning karate.

Camaraderie, travelling to new places, and meeting new people that you would otherwise never meet are just a few other reasons to take the time to go to seminars, not just offered by Koryu Uchinadi, but by any martial arts style.

For me, I go for the Karate, but stay for the wonderful people I meet.

KU Seminar Ashburn Virginia

 

February’s Video of the Month: Chris Prickett

If you’re looking for a real slick take down, check out this video from former Canadian Wrestling Champion, Chris Prickett.

In this tutorial Chris demonstrates one option from the underhook in the event the opponent starts to back away.

Moving on from this position you can simply climb up the body to mount if they turn to face you. Among other options, you can also take the back for Hadaka Jime (rear-naked choke).

Another reason I love this video is because it’s a great application for the Koryu Uchinadi ground kicking drill, Ne-Keri Waza.

Chris Prickett’s simple and elegant execution of this unique technique is what makes his demonstration The Martial Arts Muse’s Video of the Month!

Check out more of Chris Prickett’s videos and the best of Canadian wrestling on his YouTube Channel, 49 North Wrestling.

Review: Project 16 Hand Positioning

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” – Matsuo Basho

It is these words of Matsuo Basho that come to mind after watching Koryu Uchinadi Kyoshi Ante Brännbacka’s first video on hand positioning from his Project 16 series.

The Matrix of Karate

Using the Koryu Uchinadi mindset of classical tradition with contemporary insight, as well as the Japanese maxim of 精力善用 (“Seiryoku Zenyou” – maximum efficiency with minimum effort), Kyoshi Brännbacka’s instructional video breaks down positioning in a self-defense situation while categorizing your options to defend and counter single hand attacks.

Kyoshi Brännbacka takes you through the learning process by demonstrating each position. The number sixteen of Project 16 represents the different hand positions you can have. You can be on the inside or outside of the attacker’s hands. The attacks can be to the upper and lower level while you use either left or right hand to defend.

From here, he provides added counters creating a simple, efficient and effective standing flow drill to help learners recognize and retain defenses against strikes to the body.

But the fun doesn’t stop there!

The video goes on to demonstrate exits to escape the flow drill with an emphasis on practicality while utilizing leg strikes and takedowns.

Be sure to pay attention to Sensei Ante’s tips to make each technique more effective.

He then takes the drill to another level by integrating the set ups of the takedowns into the original flow drill. This can aid in the memorization of the corresponding exit to each hand position without having to repeatedly take your partner down. At the same time, it increases repetition and helps students learn to switch from one technique to the next—an important skill to have in the event things don’t go as planned.

Review Project 16 Hand Positioning

Kyoshi Brännbacka emphasizes the importance of stepping outside the drill by using the exits as taught in the video, but also encourages adding your own flare by integrating other techniques you have learned elsewhere and slowly adding aggressive resistance to reach the ultimate goal of functional spontaneity.

In the final stages of the video, Kyoshi Brännbacka demonstrates the corresponding solo exercise (the kata). The kata is a simple way to practice the drill in the event you don’t have another person to work with. Kyoshi maintains one shouldn’t just practice the drill aimlessly. In order to gain the benefits of the solo exercise you need to visualize the application you are practicing. He adds that kata is a great opportunity to perfect body mechanics and alignment and should be a representation of a perfectly executed plan.

His systematic analysis of positioning provides a fresh look at how to address strikes in a hand-to-hand combat scenario. If you’re looking for a new way to analyze self-defense situations, this is the video for you!

Be sure to watch out for Kyoshi Ante Brännbacka’s other videos for more great content!

But, don’t take my word for it.

See Kyoshi Ante Brännbacka in action now!

Lady Puts on a Necklace

North American Gasshuku, Georgetown, 2015

2015 Gasshuku Go KU

During the 2015 Gasshuku with Hanshi Patrick McCarthy, hosted by Sensei Tony Rampulla, our main focus was Riai Kumite, exploring combinations from the Aiki Kenpo Jujutsu syllabus and Niseishi Kata. We were also taught by guest instructors Sensei Scott Hogarth, Sensei Monty Guest, Sensei Cezar Borkowski and Sensei Ron Beer.

This year’s Gasshuku was by far the most unique with the vast scope of knowledge, experience and ideas on the martial arts taught by these highly regarded instructors. The topics ranged from Silat-based knife work, the simplicity of high block, the importance of distance and how to use personal anecdotes to teach your lesson.

With every Gasshuku, there is also a grading. Of those in attendance, many were promoted, including myself to Nidan.

When we first wear a black belt, like putting on a pearl necklace, we question whether we are worthy of wearing something of such great value.

Since receiving my promotion, I’ve been absorbed with the question of “what does it really mean to be a black belt?”

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Does someone deserve a black belt out of loyalty? Should you be promoted just for skill? Is your belt equal to your attitude? Are you ranked on your ability to memorize all the drills?

I think we all have our own ideas. Promotions are based on a number of variables and the values of a specific club or style.

For me, the value of a black belt doesn’t lie in what we have done to receive it, but what we will do to represent our style, teacher and most importantly ourselves as entities that promote as Sokon ‘Bushi’ Matsumura says “virtue before vice, values before vanity and principles before personalities.”

If you have been in the martial arts long enough, you will see many who receive their black belt, then just quit.

There are some people who receive their black belt and feel like they are the new badass in town. Their egos inflate to the size of an elephant.

There are those who hold their knowledge close. With no interest in teaching, they flaunt their abilities in the faces of those around them. Perhaps they even surpass the skill of their teacher.

For these people, no one will ever follow them. They will have no legacy.

Since the beginning of my martial arts training, I’ve always had a stern and determined mindset.

Gasshuku 2015 Tegume

I don’t compete with others. I do the best that I can.

With this attitude I set very strict goals and take ownership of my learning process.

This is where I think many fail.

Up until your Shodan, you are told exactly what to learn, how to learn it and if you’re lucky, maybe you even learn how to teach it. Your teacher will have always been there to assist you. However, after that, it feels little like you are in Karate Limbo, waiting for someone to tell you what to do.

I believe a black belt should have enough agency to walk the path of Karate autonomously. By this I mean you should set a schedule for your own learning process. Learn the things you feel you need to work on. Search out teachers who can help you achieve this, as opposed to simply waiting for your Sensei to tell you what’s next.

 

In preparation for the 2015 Gasshuku, I put it upon myself to learn as many of the supplementary drills in Koryu Uchinadi as I could manage, which include, but are no limited to:

Learning all the drills wasn’t something I was told to do. It is something I expected of myself.

At the same time, through learning all the ways you can manipulate the body, it makes it exponentially easier to learn, practice and retain the combinations taught during the Gasshuku.

For example, Sensei McCarthy presented Aiki Kenpo Jujutsu combinations taught by Carlos “the Ronin” Newton from last year’s Gasshuku, as well as his own variations and AKJJ drills.

For example:

When you already know all the techniques in the syllabus and understand the mechanics that make it work, you don’t have to spend time during the seminar “learning” the techniques, which make up new combinations or drills. You can just practice the drill and begin to build up to aggressive resistance.

Andrew's Arm Bar

I feel that one should not just wear a black belt, but a person should represent it. What gives the belt value isn’t the belt itself, but the person who wears it and the principles and virtues they express in their every action.

Learning the Koryu Uchinadi syllabus was a challenge that I saw value in. It is what made me feel worthy to continue to wear a black belt.

For you, the challenge might be quite different.

What determines the worth of the belt you wear is YOU!