Thursday, March 31, 2011

Go and Ju

I see things at the dojo on Curlew that make my blood simmer sometimes and sometimes I feel guilty that I'm being a karate snob.  But it's so difficult to tell if I'm being too hard and expecting too much and assuming too much or if I'm in the right and my instincts are sound.  One of the major lineages of karate, Goju-ryu, shepherded to the modern time by Chojun Miyagi and later Morio Higaonna, embodies karate's commitment to mind-body balance in its very name:  Go is Japanese for 'hard', ju japanese for 'soft'.  The hard-soft style, don't be always tight, don't be always loose.  The hard part, obviously, is knowing when to be one and when to be the other.  When the matter is a punch, effectiveness holds the key.  Effectiveness in life is sometimes harder to determine.

So at karate tonight, I was doing the same go, san, ippon kumite that I absolutely loved doing last class.  Except this time I was paired with a female yudansha, maybe a 4th or 5th dan.  She's was middle-age, and her training has likely imbued her with the vitality of a younger person.  She had pretty good eye contact and pretty good control.  Is she a nice lady?  Absolutely.  Did she offer me pointers in a humble and discreet way?  Yes, indeed.  Was she sincere in her efforts to help my karate grow? No question.  Should I expect the same sort of intensity in a 50 year old that I would in a 20 year old?  No, and I don't.

Would I be afraid of this person, who has probably trained in karate as long as I've been alive, if we were to fight and one of us had to live and the other had to die?

This is my conundrum.  Am I being too hard on this woman?  Are my expectations of her unreasonable?  Isn't karate supposed to imbue a fierceness within the meekest of people, a will to do what it takes and live or die with the consequences?  Karate training should have enough toughness to it to give anyone a moment's pause when they look into your eyes. It isn't fear you project.  It should be confidence.  It should be Go, hardness, solidness.  It should be certainty, the certainty that whatever the future holds, if you try to hurt me, you're in for a fight.

When I never see that in someone's eyes, it's hard for me.  It's difficult for me to take their advice, or heed their counsel, when I know in my heart they wouldn't even put up a decent fight. These are the people that know a lot about Karate but don't know Karate.   They know technique, but could never execute them with blood in their eyes.  And they've never wondered whether or not they can.  They can show you what to do, but not why you do it.  They come to class, 3 days a week for years, and go through the motions, never pushing themselves, forever remaining Ju, soft.  But if you don't reach down inside for that hardness in class, it won't appear out of nowhere when you need it most.  The body that betrays you...the body that runs away, as Ushiro-Sensei says.

We're doing go hon, san bon and ippon kumite, and she punches and I'm blocking and she winces in pain.  And since I'm not a monster, I ask if I'm going too hard (go), and she politely mentions that I am and I soften (ju).  And she mentions it again. And I soften (ju).  And she mentions things that I can try to soften (ju) more.  And soften (ju) some more.  I soften (ju) the motions so much that I'm not really doing them any more - I'm not trying to block her punch, I'm trying not to hurt her arm (And it wasn't a very good punch...people afraid to get hit are almost always also afraid to hit you and therefore pull their punches, which obviously, helps you both).

And this, sadly, is happening everywhere.  Except in MY dojo.  The owness is not on the person blocking to not hurt you.  The owness is on you to either deal with the pain, learn to avoid getting hit there or get stronger.  Especially when your partner is deliberately trying not to hurt you.  I'm trying to be true to the exercise while being as gentle as possible and she's complaining I'm too rough, uncoordinated, out of control.  But I could go really soft (ju) and it wouldn't hurt her arm at all - I just wouldn't be blocking the punch.  Next we have to go to the opposite extreme.  Imagine if I was trying to hurt her (go).  If my best efforts at not hurting her can't succeed, how many punches would it take to down her if I punched her like my life depended on it?  One?

In the oldest karateka in the world, I feel that that number should be two at the least.  If you can't deal with, endure, withstand, deflect, avoid, or control two of someone's best punches before being overwhelmed, what is all this for?  What was the 30 years of training for?  Just to get into shape?  Run marathons.

On top of all of that is the reality that the hard (go) blocks of karate - Jodan, Soto, Uchi and Gedan, - are supposed to be both defense and attack.  Higaonna is fond of saying that if someone punches at you, your block should be able to break their arm, ending the affair in one motion.  If you wanted to dance, dance.  If you wanted to deflect, slap their hand away with a parry, like in boxing.  This isn't dancing.  This isn't boxing.  This is karate.  You are a weapon.

So there I am, being meek and respectful to a black belt with 10 years more training than me, who is telling me my blocks should be soft (ju).  I don't want to compromise my beliefs and be disingenuous but I also didn't want to offend my sempai.  I felt like asking her: Who should I listen or Morio Higaonna?  When Ushiro-sensei says to be soft (ju), it's softness wrapped around hardness (goju).  His softness (ju) can toss (go) people.  I've felt that softness that can toss people.  This, was not that.

It would be one thing to say that you're block can be soft to grab someone or hard to hurt someone depending on the use.  But that's not what she was saying.  She was saying that what I was doing was wrong.  When it wasn't.  And I'm tempted to say that the pain in her arm was more important than whether what I was doing was effective.  I'm also tempted to say that she just never took her training seriously enough to get blocked without bruising.  Well, if you're afraid of bruising, why do you do karate?  I'm mean, yeah, it's unpleasant.  But it's also honest - the key to whether you're actually doing something or pretending to do something.  Whether there was actually contact, or near contact.  I would argue that if you went through a karate class without a bruise, bump or ache, your karate won't help you that much when you need it.  How could you take karate for 3 decades and still be afraid of a punch?

Brown belts who don't know how to fall.  Black belts afraid of punches.  I really wonder what an Okinawan master like O-Sensei, who trained on grass and concrete and punched makiwara for hours and could pull his balls up into his abdomen, would have said about a couple of bruises.  Am I being too go (hard)?  Are they simply learning at their pace, in their way, all things relative, nothing hard (go) and fast, nothing absolute?  Do I actually need to soften (ju) my blocks and soften (ju) my demeanor to be like the others at the dojo on Curlew?  Do I want to be soft (ju) like them?  Is it right to demand more: to expect more of myself?  I'll meditate on these things.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Place of our way

I had an awesome time at karate today.  We did go hon, san bon and ippon kumite.  My school will do this every day.  Along with blindfold training, I think it might really be something.  Go hon teaches posture, san bon footwork and ippon eyes.  My uke, Gilles, was really coming at me.  He tapped me on the face with a backfist and as sempai, I joked about his control.  Oops, he said.  But I was so happy.  It felt like what I'd been looking for.

Then we did some juniko where my uke, Nicole, asked me if she hurt me.  I told her not to ask me that.  Then she just went at it.  Good technique.  She's has a sharp mind, engaged with what should work and what shouldn't.  She threw me once and I pulled her down off-balance from the mat and she said that she was going easy on me.  And I told her not to do that.  She smiled and stopped going easy on me.

After class, Sensei put a returning student, Helen, with me and told me to teach her Bassai.  It was slow going.  But it was so satisfying.  I could see her mind at work, trying to put the footwork, sequence and technique together.  And I was surprised and humbled by how much I actually knew, how much I had to give.  She said, "You're instruction is excellent, I just need to practice this a lot."  What a thing to say to someone!  I felt honoured.

I think I might be onto something with this dojo idea.  I think I've actually figured out what my heart wants.  If every class was like yesterday's class, I could do karate every day forever and never complain.  Gilles, Nicole and Helen taught me an important lesson - one that I kinda knew but was made resoundingly clear.  A dojo isn't about a place.  It's about people.  It's about trust.  It's about love  A dojo is about going somewhere together.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

UFC 128

I am a broad minded martial follower.  From big battles like Actium to Waterloo, and Normandy and Midway, to personal skirmishes like Ali-Frazer, Tyson, de la Hoya, Mayweather, Pacquiao, Couture, Liddell, GSP, Silva.  I really don't see the difference.  It's all kinda the same.  The scale and the stakes may be different.  But at the core is one objective (victory), two opponents, strategy, tactics and execution.  At the core is honesty.  Two sides trying their best with the tools they have.

Honesty is the bedrock principle of the combat disciplines.  Training for the unknown and unknowable means that you really, REALLY can't afford to delude yourself about the few considerations that are reasonably predictable.  If someone really wanted to hurt you, they would attack from behind.  If someone wanted to knife you, you probably won't see the blade.  True honesty about our expectations is what moves martial study to martial practice: from hobby to Way.

I raise this principle of honesty in regards to something I saw last night.  Two men, Mauricio Rua and Jon Jones fought in Newark NJ for the UFC's light heavyweight (LHW) title.  I started following this division with interest about 4 years ago, watching a MMA stylist named Lyoto Machida fight Tito Ortiz.  In that fight, I was surprised and pleased to find that Machida (who has a background in Karate and Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ)) executing an effective counter-punching strategy against the pressing and aggressive Ortiz. It was a marvelous display of contrasting strategy, tactics and execution that stood out from the simple athleticism of striking and wrestling typical of most MMA bouts.

I held out hope that the fight, which put Machida on a path towards the LHW title, would signal a change from the simple strategies of forward-pressing ring generalship that I see in the UFC, Pride, Strikeforce, and other MMA promotions to a more nuanced, daring and sophisticated approach to physically engaging with the opponent.  Those hopes were reinforced a few matches later when Machida - who had began to settle into a reputation for counter-punching - defeated Rashad Evans by making a strong, calculated blitzkrieg flurry of punches to KO the champ and take the title.  A fighter who could win by giving ground or pushing forward - I had hoped that Machida's reign would cause other fighters to broaden their tactics to include more legerdemain in the MMA approach.

I haven't seen this to be the case, however.  Machida's title defense against Rua was the opposite of everything that I'd been hoping for.  Rather than being fluid and diverse in strategy - adapting to his opponent - Machida again settled into a counter-punching strategy that, while brilliant against the plodding and direct Ortiz, was wholly inappropriate against the much more dangerous and dynamic Rua.  Instead of wrestling, or using angles or targeting legs to slow his opponent, Machida did exactly what Rua was expecting -- backing up and trying to counter -- for 5 rounds.  In the end, a battered and bruised Machida was quite surprised to have won a very controversial decision (I would have preferred that he lost as a reminder of his strategic failure, but I would have also preferred for a belt to be exchanged on a knockout or submission).

The Machida experiment was all but put to rest with Rua's revenge at the rematch a few months later.  Rua's strategy remained the same: press forward.  Machida's strategy never really became clear because he got knocked out before it could be formed.  With that loss, the triumph of athletic attributes over strategic vision in MMA had been firmly established once again: the man in the Octagon with better endurance, better range, better speed, better power or more aggressiveness always wins.  Might as well put the numbers into a computer.  Thinking has nothing to do with the outcome.  When the athletic attributes are evenly matched, the fighter that wins was simply luckier.

It is this lack of strategic acumen and tactical execution that I feel is the reason why no man has defended a LHW belt in 3 years.  Fighters have specific strengths which they are expected to play to, they do what is expected and someone ends up winning.  This is what I saw, to a tee, last night at UFC 128.  On one side, stood Rua, 29 years, coming off of two knee surgeries, hasn't fought in 10 months, 76 in. reach, strengths in Thai striking and BJJ.  On the other stood Jones, 23 years, 13-1 (with his one loss coming by disqualification), last fought 5 weeks earlier and winning without being touched, 84 in. reach.  Long, lanky, unconventional striker, array of knees and spinning elbow and high-calibur wrestler with two brothers who are professional football players.

On paper, what was to happen was obvious.  It was obvious.  I say that twice because I know all about Black Swans and how much more predictable things look in hindsight.  But, on paper?  It goes back to honesty.  Martial artists need to be honest about their expectations, to inspect what they expect. On paper, it would have been nice if someone in Shogun's camp said that his opponent is younger, stronger, with more reach, more rhythm and timing, more recent fight experience, more conditioning and a high class wrestler.  It would have been nice if someone had been honest and said that Shogun would have to outsmart him because he can't outclass him. But it didn't seem that anyone said that because Shogun came out as if he was fighting anyone, not the man in front of him.  He fought as if the man in front of him didn't matter.

But that was all that mattered.  Rua couldn't traverse Jones' reach.  He couldn't outlast him.  He couldn't get him on the ground.  He couldn't fight him off from his back.  He couldn't do any of the things that everyone knows Shogun does well.  And it seemed obvious that Jon Jones knew what everyone else knew.  That's why the man was trying flying knees and spinning back kicks.  He wasn't concerned at all.  He knew what to expect and since there was no strategy to Rua at all, all that was left was what his opponent is expected to do, what he's done before.

None of that would have worked against Jones, even if Jones hadn't known it was coming.  Rua is a Muay Thai striker.  But Jones has more devastating knees and elbows and is taller making the delivery that much easier.  Rua is a BJJ black belt.  Jones is a collegiate wrestler with long flexible limbs that gives him the luxury of seeing the submission hold coming from a mile away.

Watching the utterly one-sided annihilation of a defending champion who employed no strategy at all and who got that championship by what to my mind was a 'fortunate' punch in a fight that employed no strategy at all, was a depressing sight to say the least.  Rogan was quick to call Jones the future of MMA.  But it doesn't seem like the future to me at all.  It just seems like more of the past.  Jones isn't winning through training or coaching.  He isn't winning because he's outsmarting his opponents.  He's winning because he's an athletic freak who, more often than not, can do the predictable things his opponents will do twice as well.  Much as Chuck Liddell didn't revolutionize anything.  If you traded with Chuck, he was just better at knocking you out than you were.  Once that went away, so did Liddell.

Jon Jones will revolutionize MMA when he's getting beat the way that he beat on Mauricio Rua last night, and lures his opponent into a triangle.  When he has to outsmart his opponent.  When he does something no one knew he could do, something no one could have fathomed, least of all his opponent, to steal a win through subterfuge.  That will be a revolution.  MMA continues to lack this mental dimension, which is why I feel that the discipline as it now stands would be better served being called MFA, mixed fighting arts.  A martial art by definition employs thought and strategy.  It means being sensitive to your opponent's strengths and unbalancing (kuzushi) them, both physically and mentally, forcing them out of their comfort zone, attacking their expectations, forcing them to adapt.

But I'm not seeing much adapting in MMA.  I'm not being surprised.  Though it is a sport; it simply isn't a thinking man's sport as yet.  Just more of the toughest guy in the room getting beat up by the guy who's tougher.

Friday, March 11, 2011


2011 0311: I'm pleasantly surprised by the small amount of blistering of my feet.  I suspect that it's mostly because we aren't on a hardwood floor anymore, but maybe I'm tougher than I think!

2011 0309: Eyes.  Eyes. are. the. first. principle.  Look into their eyes and open your spirit.  We will kill the flinch reflex one way or another.

The Virtues of Pain

My feet are killing me.  My middle finger won't bend.  And that's from going at 50% intensity.  There are so many habits in me I have to iron out.  It's like preparing your gi.  You have to smooth out the bends and folds with the steam in order for it to sit right.  When the fabric sits, it is at its most relaxed.  With each kink that gets ironed out, the gi becomes more functional.  And thus, more beautiful.

My finger hurts because in my enthusiasm in showing off my skill, I forgot to do a very simple thing: make a solid fist.  I know that at times my fist will hurt because I hit something I shouldn't have, but tonight I hit something badly.  And I know better.  But knowing isn't enough.  Do.  You have to do.  You have to do it naturally - repeat it so much that you can't do any differently.  Did I make a fist of rock each time my arm extended? No.

My feet hurt because I used them very badly yesterday.  It was ego.  I wasn't centered.  I was off-balance inside; pushing, wanting.  From the outside, I probably looked capable.  But inside I was trying to prove something.  My foot would go out and sometimes it would hit.  But karate is about always hitting and hitting hard.  You can't hit sometimes.  If you strike, you must hit.  If you miss, you die.  My knee wouldn't come up.  I would aim for ankles with the wrong motion.  Too eager.  I didn't flex my foot fully on front kicks and extend fully on round.  And that's why I can't flex or extend my foot at all now.

There is a virtue to pain.  One that we largely don't acknowledge today.  Today, we do everything to avoid pain.  We take pharmacological agents to mask it.  We use ice to numb it.  We refrain from painful things in the first place. So much of my life, of all our lives, is spent in resentment of pain.  But pain is terribly instructive.  Pain is the most honest teacher of all.  It is the most steadfast and enduring teacher of all.  We can do everything in our power not to learn from it, but the lessons are always there, waiting for us to listen.  Be it heartbreak or bonebreak, if you don't learn from something that hurts you, you'll probably never learn.

We regard pain in the wrong light.  It is, like so many things, an opportunity. I was on the bus home yesterday, conjuring up all the ways I could minimize the bruising, maintain the range of motion, get back to training as soon as possible.  When really, what would happen if I didn't?  If I just acknowledge the pain, embrace it, and take a moment?  Really reflect on what I did to feel this way?  Use the time of recuperation to make a change?  Take the lesson to heart so that I don't make the same mistake again?

I'm going to stretch my feet now and breath and think about what I did wrong.  I won't be writing about pain anymore.  I'm just going to shut up and listen.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Summit Place

I met this man named Kenji Ushiro.  He showed me another dimension.  I want to walk his path but I am afraid.  I am afraid that I will walk it wrong, that I won't reach where he has reached.  I wonder - agonize, really - about how to get there.  When I asked him, he responded with one word...


What Westerners saw, American servicemen saw, of the Okinawan "forms" of Karate, was just one dimension.  Ushiro-Sensei says there is another.  Another dimension to kata that the Western tradition of Karate knows next to nothing about.  They know nothing about it and they don't believe in it.  We see things in the West with our eyes and our minds.

Ushiro-Sensei says that you must see kata with your heart.  Only then can you touch this hidden dimension.

I agonize because it is difficult for me to put faith in things that I can't see and don't understand.  This has been my biggest problem in my Karate: putting faith in the unknown.  In the expertise of people that can't prove their expertise.  Faith, in my opinion, is something that is earned before it should be invested totally.  When someone asks that you put faith in them, they should prove first that that faith is deserved.

Kata does not do this.  Kata does not prove that it should be the Way.  But Kenji Ushiro does.  His skill is...Words diminish it.  I would commit myself to his Way.  But it is difficult.  It would be less difficult if I could prove to myself that I am making progress.  Then my faith would periodically be renewed.  But how can I prove this to myself?

When I think that I will commit myself to this path for all my life, the thought that such commitment could be met with failure is paralyzing.  I feel like I can't breath.  I have to remind myself that I am not on the path only to reach the mountain's peak.  I must be satisfied daily that I am climbing ever higher. This will bring me peace of mind. That thought will comfort me even if I do not meet Ushiro-Sensei at the summit.