Sunday, 28 September 2014

On being a teacher

I often repeat a mantra to my students that I learnt from Sensei Robert Mustard (yes, that would be Robert ‘the bastard’ Mustard) – “the hardest part about Aikido is getting to the dojo, once you’re there you just do it”.  Often my fellow instructors and I play the ‘whose attendance is worse game’.  This conversation often degenerates into disgruntled moaning, which is rarely useful to anyone.  This got me thinking, that perhaps my latest blog entry would be “on being a teacher”.

Being a teacher was never a natural choice for me.  I began my martial arts career when I was 6, studying Karate.  My Karate career lasted me until I was in my teens.  Having worked my way through university I returned to martial arts for no other reason than attempting to regain some fitness.  I first attempted to re-enter the world of Karate, but found that as an art it no longer interested me.  Next I joined a Tomiki club, but felt that Saturday training only was not enough for me to regain any semblance of fitness.  This led me to shop around, where I eventually found Shinkendo swordsmanship.  Twice a week started to feel like a work out, when behold I found a third class in Aikikai style Aikido.  Training 3 times a week certainly helped get me fit, but it is also where I first experienced the martial arts bug.

Sensei Obata describes the 5 levels of being a martial artist.  In simple terms they looks as follows:
  1. Fleeting interest - unlikely to stay more than a couple of lessons
  2. Casual interest – comes and goes from time to time
  3. Practitioner – takes training seriously, is dedicated
  4. Semi-professional – begins to understand the deeper ethos of training, begins to teach others
  5. Professional – teaches other, runs own dojo 

Curiously most people end up travelling this route through their martial arts career, if they stick with it that is.  Training 3 times a week pushed me into level 4.  Why?  That’s a question I ask myself often.  As an individual, if I do something I naturally want to do it well.  No one wants to go to an obscure university by choice.  Instead many would prefer the prestige of going to Oxford, if they are able to.  So it was with me.  I was training to get fit when I was bitten.  It was then that I figured to myself, if I’m going to do this I might as well do it properly.  This caused me to attend one of Sensei Obata’s seminars where it was clearly apparent to me that he was an expert.  The analogy above applied in my simple brain.  It was clear, Obata = Oxford, and I had to go there.  This led me to travel abroad and learn from him and the rest is history. 

Perhaps this story sounds like martial arts snobbery, and if it does then yes, I am guilty of this – unashamedly so.  Later I would return to normal life where I had to find a way to continue training.  I essentially had 3 options:

  1.  Join an existing club – though this could interfere with what I was learning from Sensei Obata
  2. Practice on my own – not an option for Aikido
  3. Start a dojo – to train with others

Starting a dojo also had 1 other benefit, being accountable to others forced me to commit myself to being  a teacher and training, and by extension developing in these arts.  The unspoken contract I would make with my students was for as much my benefit as theirs.  So here I am all these years later reminiscing on this unspoken contract and wondering what happened?  The answer is, I graduated from level 4 to 5 – that being, I began to understand that running a dojo and teaching others is not as simple as just training with likeminded individuals.

To teach on a basic level all you truly need to know is:
  • The techniques – waza
  • The order of sequences
  • Names of moves
  • Historical understanding
  • What principles they teach and
  • How they really work 
Most of us understand this and expect it from our teachers.  What is not considered are these:-          
  • Organisational skills (events/seminars)
  • Motivating others and people skills
  • Budgeting and insurance
  • Time management, specifically in relation to family/dojo/work life
  • Marketing and attracting new blood
  • Website management
  •  Promoting the martial art to others (cross sector seminars)
  •  Developing your “talent” to become your next instructors

 Every business needs to factor these points into their business plan, but hey, we’re martial artists – what do we know about business plans?  Using my martial arts career as an example, I began to run a dojo to selfishly help myself train and develop – I didn’t go through an MBA or management program which taught me these skills.  This I believe is a difficulty that all martial arts teachers face, and as an industry this is something I believe we should take better care to combat if we are to survive.

As Sensei Ken Robinson once said to me, running a dojo will kill your hobby – and how true he was.  Being a teacher requires bags and bags of energy.  If you have a bad day at work, lose a contract, get fired, run over your dog on the way home, get ill – none of these things matter.  You are required to turn up to your lesson with a smile and run your class like nothing has happened regardless of the day you’ve just had or the demands on your time.  In addition, as your hall fees are a contractual requirement all you can see are £ signs, which cause you to worry – will my attendees be enough to cover my hall hire fees?  All these things build up into a mental anxiety even before you start the class.  The pervading thoughts are:  my worries don’t matter, I have to teach my class as others are depending on me, and I hope enough people will attend to ensure that I don’t suffer a loss on the hall fees.

Gone are the days of care free I just want to train to develop myself mentalities.  Additionally your students are hungry to catch up to you, so you have to ensure that you continue to develop yourself so that they don’t better you.  Saying that, this is something that you long for!  Occasionally you remind yourself, oh yeah, I began to teach so that I could train and develop myself – except, because of my skill level I need others on a similar playing field to me or I can’t really train at the level I am at.  To facilitate this you want people to get to your skill level as quickly as possible so that the more difficult training can begin, which no doubt you’ll enjoy if you can get there.  In your mind you segregate the development blocks, this week we’ll do A, next B, week after C – and eventually we’ll get through the whole alphabet which means that with this student we can have fun in X many weeks.  The plan sounds so simple but then the fatal flaw appears.  Students don’t appear every week and so the lessons they experience begin to look like – B, F, H, R, S, Z – clearly not the correct order.

As if to compound the issue the business needs yet again re-arise as the rent becomes due.  Your students aren’t reciting a full A, B, C – as their attendance has been sporadic.  Your chance to train has for this month stalled and again your life put on a hold to cater for the needs of your class and so the cycle continues.  Months turn to years and after a while the initial aim and desire begins to seem like a distant memory.  And then, one day you look around and two things happen.  One of your students appears to have got it.  They know the alphabet, though you’re not sure how or when that happened.  In addition, they have graduated from level 3 to 4 and you feel like, wow – I did that.  And then another thing happens:  someone comes to you explaining they have seen what you’re doing and they want a piece of it.  In those moments it all feels worth it.

The duties of an instructor are often burdensome.  Our primary duty is to our students and when that student begins to get it the feeling of accomplishment is astounding.  I consider myself a little more encumbered than others as I have the duty to spread Shinkendo throughout the UK.  I own this duty to my teacher who took the time to invest his knowledge in me when I was just a snotty nosed kid.  When another sees what I am doing and remarks on the beauty of what they see, again it feels worth it.  Being a teacher is not easy.  Often I feel like I want to shake my students and say to them – “you’ve had a bad day?  So what?!”, or “you don’t have the time, what about me and my life?!”, or “you feel ill/lazy, I don’t have that luxury!”. 

I believe that these are all natural feelings that every human being is bound to experience – but then I am reminded by Sensei Obata, the training scale is 1 – 5.  Not everyone is at level 5, most sit at level 2.  Yes, many will never get it or move onto level 3.  Sometimes the cycle feels self-defeating and doomed to a Sisyphus like process, but then again this is what it means to be a teacher.  Occasionally others remark to me that they’ll never be as good as me, and it is at these times I remind them – the only thing that separates me from them is that I have more time on the mat.  My journey and my bug were caught the more time I spent in the dojo, which as Sensei Robert reminds us, getting to the dojo is the hardest part.

As one experienced teacher to others – this cycle is brutal.  It saps energy, tries your patients, and sometimes tests you to the point of breaking.  To go through this cycle and survive is what it means to be a teacher.  To all students, if you want to be as good as your teachers the key is mat time only.  Make your teachers sweat, push them to be better as often they’re there for the same reasons you are – to train and develop.  In Japanese this system is described as Sempai/Kohai.  Embrace it and above all else enjoy it.  Becoming a martial artist is a life long journey, one day you too will experience this cycle and become a teacher.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

What is Shinkendo?

Following on from last week’s intro entry, this week I aim to cover the second question, i.e. what is Shinkendo.

Firstly, let’s cover what it is not.  Primarily it is not a traditional, ancient school of martial arts – a koryu.  Shinkendo is a modern martial art developed by Obata Toshishiro Kaiso in the early 90s.  The honorific use of the word “Kaiso” symbolises that the person referenced is the creator of something new, which is essentially what Shinkendo is – something new, albeit based on something old.  Why did Obata Kaiso create Shinkendo?  To answer this we need to consider the historical perspective of Japanese swordsmanship. 

Japanese swordsmanship was at its height during the warring state period, known as the Sengoku period.   This period culminated in three famous warlords, namely; Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, eventually unifying Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate.  The Shogunate would last just over 200 years in what is known as the Sakoku period, the period in which foreigners were expelled from Japan and the Japanese borders closed to outsiders. 

The fall of the Shogun began in 1854 when Admiral Matthew Perry sailed his ships into Japan.  Being safely out at sea he began to bombard the Japanese coast with his cannons.  This show of modern military might highlighted to the Japanese that the world had moved on but Japan had not.  What would follow included a civil war, the fall of the Shogun and Japan’s rush to modernise.  This included the famous dissolution of the Samurai warrior and the rise of Imperial might.

The events leading up to the warring states period led to the creation of the Samurai warrior.  During this period warfare was often conducted on horseback, which meant that as a result the Japanese Katana was longer and used in a downward slashing motion.  After the battle of Sekigahara, which ultimately led to the unification of Japan, Japan would enter into a ‘peaceful’ era, during which mass warfare were no longer the norm.  During this period Japanese swordsmanship would switch to ground fighting with the central emphasis being on dueling.  The modern heroes of Japan swordsmanship would arise during this period, which included Miyamoto Musashi and Yagyū Munenori.

Under the Shogunate Japanese dueling style swordsmanship experienced its renaissance.  However, the fall of the Shogun and the rise of the Emperor had the reverse effect.  The Samurai were outlawed along with the Katana, which could no longer be worn in public.  As a result traditional swordsman schools once teaching thousands of students fell into obscurity.  It was not until the period surrounding World War 2 that Japan re-sought its historical roots relating to the sword.  However, many of the traditional schools had long since ceased to practice meaning that the only records of the techniques they once taught could be found recorded in scrolls.  Many sought to re-study these scrolls in order to rebuild these former schools but we are reminded that learning martial arts through books is never truly possible.  As swords based warfare had long since passed there was in reality no real way to rediscover the true samurai swordsmanship taught before the Meiji Era and as such these schools were in reality lost to us.

During World War 2 the swordsmanship style taught to the army was Toyama Ryu.  This style of swordsman was by all accounts crude, being entirely based on practicalities and the ability to cut multiple opponents at a rush.  Many of the flamboyant movements seen in other swords based martial arts were deemed unnecessary for real warfare.  Even techniques such as chiburi, or putting the sword away, was seen as unnecessary to master.  The reason for this was that it was highly unlikely that after charging into battle with a sword that you were going to go home alive again afterwards and therefore learning to put the sword away was itself not a practical technique.   It should however be remembered that the last time swordsmanship was actually used in an actual combat situation was during this period and therefore the techniques taught here give us the most authentic understanding of how to use a sword in a real situation.

Obata Kaiso began his martial arts career in 1966.  He later gained an interest in swordsmanship, which he began to study in earnest in 1973.  During this time he would study Nakamura-ryu, Ioriken Battojutsu, Toyama-ryu, Yagyu Shinkage-ryu and Kashima Shin-ryu, amongst others.  However, his central criticism of these arts would later be that alone they held individual lessons to be learnt, but each style was incomplete on its own.  Furthermore, many of the core concepts that made each style unique were most likely unauthentic as many of critical components would most likely have been lost after the fall of samurai warrior during the Meiji Era.  Therefore the logical conclusion was to reformulate the practical elements of these schools into a new unified system, which teaches its students “how” to use a sword practically without any historically unverifiable baggage.  The result of this was the creation of “Shinkendo”, which means “the way of the real sword”.

Shinkendo is a modern martial art.  Many of the techniques, or cuts, used within it are based on traditional koryu, but it is not a koryu itself.  The central emphasis in Shinkendo rests on the practical use of a sword and not on ambiguous traditions.  As a system Shinkendo has been designed to encompass all practical aspects of how to use a sword.  Shinkendo teaches us “how” to use a sword, rather than “to use” the sword.  To learn “how” to use a sword 3 central skills need developing.  They are:
  •      How to swing a sword correctly
  •      How to use your body in time with the sword movement
  •      How to draw the sword and put it away without cutting yourself

Each of these elements are taught in Shinkendo through the following: 
  1. Sword swinging - Suburi training
  2. Body exercise practice - Ashisabaki and Kensabaki training
  3. How to draw and put the sword away - Battoho training

Once each of these skills are developed they can be combined into a unified whole and practiced as a complete set through form training, known as the Tanrengata training.  By practicing these Kata the practitioner is able to analysis their movements in order to assess areas, which still require refinement, known as the act of Tanren.

Having worked on these basic skills the next area of study is combat or sparring.  This area is practised through paired partner training, known as Tachiuchi.  These exercises focus on the central skills required to duel rather than on the sparring itself.  Arts such as Kendo focus solely on the sparring, which is permissible because of the use of armour, which protects the body against heavy blows.  However, as the armour only covers a limited area of the body, i.e. not on the back or behind the head, many avoidance based movements cannot be executed safely.  As a result Kendo sparring traditionally occurs in a linier pattern with parties often landing simultaneous blows.  In an actual combat scenario this would result in the death of both combatants, which it is assumed would be undesirable.

Rather than travel this road Shinkendo aims to practice the core skills required to duel in a real situation.  These include:
  •        How to block and avoid an attack
  •       The distancing between yourself and your opponent
  •       Focused pressure with the intent of overcoming your opponent through fluidity of body movement and sword movement
  •       Balance distribution and the shifting of your body to allow quicker and easier dynamic avoidance and body movement whilst transitioning between strikes and blocks
  •       Timing disruption and the trickery of sword movement

In order to train these skills without impediment and in a safe manner pre-set forms are used.  These allow both parties to forget about the unpredictable and rather focus on developing the skills referred to above.  This is in stark contrast to the Kendo based sparring, which whilst not pre-set, rarely vary beyond attempting to hit the opponent with a downward strike onto head.

Having learnt the above the final area to experience is the physical cutting with a sword.  In Shinkendo this is done through Tameshigiri, or test cutting practice during which straw targets which simulate the density of an opponent are cut using a real sword.  By practising this, the practitioner is given an opportunity to experience how successful their training has been so far and how precise their cutting angle is.

So what is Shinkendo?  It is a modern martial art, which focuses on “how” to practically use a Japanese sword.  It teaches the core skills needed by a swordsman to be a well rounded swordsman without any of the unverifiable historical baggage.  Shinkendo is a complete system teaching correct body movement, how to swing and cut with the sword, how to draw and put the sword away, the skills required to duel, and finally the physical cutting of targets.  Shinkendo is something new, based on something old, and it is hoped that all who experience it will enjoy it for its simplicity and its sheer practical effectiveness.

Friday, 5 September 2014

What is Aikido - "do", "jutsu" or baloney?

After much thought I have decided to start a blog in order to share my thoughts about Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu with my students in the hope that I can help them to better understand the martial arts that they are studying.  I would stress that a lot of what I know, I know because I have one of the best teachers in the world – namely, Toshishiro Obata Kaiso, the founder of Shinkendo.

I have decided that my first topic would be, what is Aikido?  Is it a ‘do’, 'jutsu' or just baloney?  What prompted this was an article that I recently read in which the spiritual side of Aikido was praised and the ‘jutsu’ side of it reduced to a side note.  Before I begin I must clarify my position, we live in the 21st century where science shows us that ki, inner energy and other mystical mumbo jumbo just doesn’t exist.  Sport, and by extension the Martial Arts, are simply reducible to bio-mechanics and simple physiology.  There is nothing more to it.  Anything other is explainable as a simple placebo effect.

Let us then consider the differences between “jutsu” and “do”.  Prior to World War II all martial arts in Japan were suffixed with the word “jutsu”.  “Jutsu” as a word simply means technique.  Add the word “bu”, meaning military, to it and you get military technique.  Add the word “ju”, meaning gentle, and you get gentle technique as in Jujutsu.

After the Japanese defeat in WWII, Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur banned all association to Japan’s Military past.  The upshot of this was that all martial arts, then connected to the military, were banned as part of his reforms.  The only way for these martial arts to continue was for them to reform.  In doing so they changed their central focus from bujutsu, or the military, to “do” meaning the “way of”.  The “way” adopted tended to either be sports based or spiritual.  Jujutsu and Kenjutsu both adopted sporting elements becoming Judo and Kendo.  Meanwhile Kyujutsu and Aikibujutsu/Aikijujustu adopted spiritual elements becoming Kyudo and Aikido.

The above however should be qualified in so far as not all Aikido became “spiritual”.  Kenjo Tomiki, the founder of Tomiki Aikido, chose instead to take his Aikido down the sporting path, a path still followed today by the Shodokan.  The result being, this qualification shows that only Ueshiba based Aikido tended to be spiritual in focus.

We are reminded that all Aikido traces its roots not from Ueshiba, but instead from the teachings of Sokaku Takeda.  Sokaku himself was a last generation Samurai having learnt the original secret techniques of the Aizu clan.  After the restoration of the emperor and the banning of the Samurai, Sokaku found himself unemployed and so resorted to teaching his clan secrets for a living.  Sokaku would later found Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu; the pre-cursor to modern Aikido.

Sokaku and Ueshiba met in 1915 at the Hisada Inn in Engaru, Hokkai.  Their time together would last over 20 years and was often described as a “love-hate” relationship.  The difficulties essentially emerged from Ueshiba’s association with Onisaburo Deguchi which began in 1919.  Onisaburo was a spiritual teacher who would have a great impact on Ueshiba’s life.  After meeting him Ueshiba promptly proclaimed that he wanted to renounce his previous life and follow the Omoto religion and the teachings of Onisaburo.  Given Japan’s continual military path, unsurprisingly, Onisaburo suggested that Ueshiba continue to teach martial arts as this would allow the Omoto religion greater exposure to senior military officials who were at the time seeking out martial arts instruction from Ueshiba.  Reluctantly Ueshiba agreed but we are reminded that what Ueshiba really wanted was to be a spiritual disciple and not a martial arts teacher.

In 1942 Onisaburo and Ueshiba travelled together through Manchuria with the eventual goal being Mongolia.  However, their party was captured and subjected to court martial.  The majority of the party was executed with Ueshiba being spared last minute due to his associations with senior military officials.  Shortly after the Omoto religion was banned in Japan with Ueshiba being forced into exile.  Ueshiba would later move to Iwama, Ibaraki where he would live the remainder of his life.

In the aftermath of the Manchurian incident Ueshiba was no longer free to manifest his spiritual beliefs.  It is therefore unsurprising that he would conceal these ideas into his martial art and disseminate them as part of it.  With time and age the art came to reflect more characteristics of the Omoto religion than the original Aikijujutsu techniques taught by Sokaku Takeda.  Techniques which we are reminded were originally taught as counter methods to existing schools such as jujutsu and taijutsu; were reduced to stylised dance often reflecting a shimmer of their former glory but not quite reaching it.

Against this backdrop we once again ask ourselves; what is Aikido – “do”, “jutsu” or just baloney?  

Many who see Aikido demonstrations on Youtube, with attackers flying all over the show at the merest of touches would answer in the later, i.e. the baloney category.  Others would say that such demonstrations show the harmony of two individuals coming together, working towards something special, demonstrate a merging of two spirits co-operating through peaceful means which allows this blossoming to occur.  I find neither answer satisfactory.  At its historical reducibility Aikido is nothing more than a “jutsu”.

However, being a jutsu requires further clarification.  Primarily Aikido holds its roots in the military history of the Samurai warrior.  These techniques were employed in one of two situations, the battle field or the castle.  Warriors on the battle front would often be clad in armour meaning that body strikes would have little impact.  These warriors would be wielding swords and would often charge/lunge their opponents in a way similar to the over committed attacks often seen in Aikido demonstrations today.  Likewise, these attackers would often have their wrists exposed, which explains why many Aikido techniques concentrate on the hands as a weak spot.
In the castle warriors where subjected to different rules.  Whilst in front of their superior the samurai could not stand or raise themselves higher than the lord.  They were also prohibited from drawing blood in front of the lord even if attacked.  Failure on both fronts could mean the forfeit of their life.  The kneeing techniques often seen in Aikido demonstrations, and the locking controls often employed owe their origins to these onerous castle laws.

So then is Aikido reducible to nothing more than ancient historical techniques of the Samurai, techniques meant for the battle field and the castle?  - in essence yes, in reality no.  As a technical system Aikido could probably be learnt by someone with complete mastery of their body within 30 days.  Ueshiba himself is thought to have learnt it within this time period.  

Unfortunately the reality of modern life means that few have this kind of mastery anymore.  As such, Aikido as a system teaches core skills often lacking in individuals.  These skills are taught through a series of forms, known as Waza.  These skills include:  balance, weight distribution, timing, distancing, body positioning, and basic anatomical structuring.  By training in these techniques side benefits are also achieved such as improvements in basic fitness, endurance, flexibility and body conditioning. 

Aiki as the overriding martial principle behind the system effectively means to merge my timing with the attackers thus allowing me to increase the energy behind the attack which should overpower you causing you to defeat yourself.  However, achieving this without the skills described above is impossible.  It is therefore unsurprising that the majority of Aikido training tends to focus on developing these core skills rather than employing the central concept of Aiki itself.  Developing these skills are life changing and beneficial to all.  In a world overrun by computers and technology sports are often neglected.  Aikido allows us to regain some of our body control and re-teaches ourselves how to use this ever important, and continually rendered redundant, tool.

Let us now reconsider the original question; what is Aikido - “do”, “jutsu” or baloney?  

Against its historical backdrop Aikido is nothing more than a “jutsu”, or set of techniques, based in the Samurai’s history.  The overall school of Aikido enables practitioners to develop central skills vital to any martial artist through the use of the training waza employed.  When these skills are unified and the practitioner gains control of their body they can employ this in the overriding aim of Aiki, which is to merge our timing with that of another’s thus causing that person to overpower themselves.  Ascribing anything more than this to Aikido is unnecessary.  At its core Aikido is a military school and should remain so.