Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Demonstrations - the good, the bad, the down right dangerous

Over the years I have watched many martial arts demonstrations, from the lowest of teachers to the highest of professionals.  Being a somewhat opinionated individual I often directly question what I am seeing, a fact not always welcomed.  Often I am left thinking that the demonstration I just watched was of something that wouldn’t work without a compliant uke.  At other times I am left feeling that it’s just downright dangerous to install knowledge of that quality into a student. 

Whilst I understand that martial arts is a high personal business where comments such as these are not always welcome, on the one hand I apologise for the upset I cause but on another I do worry about the safety of some students, specifically in terms of the false confidence that they have come to cherish from their years of training.  With this in mind my topic for this week is demonstrations.

Let’s start at the top, i.e. a bad demonstration – lets take this Youtube clip as an example:

To explain the background:  the teacher claims to be a very advanced Aiki teacher.  He claims to furthermore be an expert on Aikijutsu.  The video itself is his defence of what it is he does and what he knows.  You’ll note that I have gone through his clip and offered comments.  The defence I got was typical being, oh what would you know, this isn’t your martial art.  I'll let my comments speak for themselves.

Next lets look at the dangerous.  If you haven’t already watched it, watch the following Youtube clip entitled, “kiai master vs MMA”. 

The premise of the video is that a Japanese Kiai Master, in his later years, challenges any MMA fighter to a fight.  The winner walks away with $5,000.  The video starts off showing you said master demonstrating his “devastating kiai attacks” on his students, all who seem ever so willing to fall over at the slightest blink.  The fight begins, MMA fighter punches said master and the master looks stunned.  Round 2, MMA fighter returns with a punch and a kick, and the master is down.  The fight ends.  A devastated master lies on the floor in emotional ruins.

This video is often deemed martial arts comedy, but personally I find it tragic.  This “master”, clearly in his advanced years has spent his entire life on something that was not real.  Think of all the Sunday lunches missed, walks in the sunny park when he was in a dark and dingy dojo and family time he'll never get back - and for what?  To be embarrassed for all eternity on Youtube due to his gullibility?  Who is at fault here?  Him or his students?  The answer is of course debatable.

In martial arts we train principles.  These include stance, balance distribution, timing, stamina, power generation, hip movement, grace, elegance and so on.  These are similar skills that you learn in dance classes – the difference being the lack of aggression and need to defend yourself (unless you go to a particularly violent dance class that is!).  This reminds me of a story I once heard in Japan.  The story goes that one day a young lady walked into an Aikido dojo.  This lady was a professional dancer.  She began training and picked everything up incredibly fast to the point where the dojo accused her of being an outsider attempting to steal their secrets, which caused them to kick her out.  The lady was in fact telling the truth – this was her first lesson but the point is many of the advanced skills she had already master through dancing.  How factual this story is, is debateable but the principle stands.

When I watch demonstrations this is what I look for.  What principles are the demonstrator showing.  How are their hips placed, what is their timing like, is their body well placed, what is their control like afterwards, did they need assistance from their attacker to pull their move off and so on...  What I don’t look for, or at, is the technique itself, which is in reality immaterial.  After all, I know the basic techniques (Ikkajo, Nikajo etc.) and have seen numerous variations of them.  The techniques themselves are just tools to learning principles and what I want to know if how well that teacher has learnt those principles.

Another thing I dislike seeing is people using their own uki.  Your students are trained to react to you.  You train every week with them and they become experienced at your body movements – willingly or not.  In the “kiai master” video above, if that master had “demo’ed” with a non-initiated student he would have known immediately that his students were being brain washed into reacting to him and therefore what he was doing was purely suggestion.  Vis a vi, there were in fact no “kiai” techniques occurring.  One other point is that where you use your own students if you are good enough to make what you are doing look effortless then others criticise what they see as fake – and I guess in some instances it does look that way.  Using someone unclear, unbiased, untrained to react to you shows one thing centrally key to any demonstration – i.e. what I am doing works.

With regards to myself, when I demonstrate I typically attempt to show my body placement.  Without good body placement all techniques degrade into muscle power, which is all good and fine until you find a guy big enough that you simply can’t move.  The reason I show this is that this is the essence of Aiki – i.e. good technique, no muscles required.  To do this I will famously ask people to just stand there and I’ll happily fling them around.  Yes, this doesn’t illustrate “musubi” principles, but what it does show is that I don’t need my uki to jump for me, or help me make my technique work, or do anything that might make me look silly for my technique to at least appear effective.  Anyone seeing this should hopefully come to 1 conclusion, my technique on its own, works.  Surely at a demonstration that is what you want to see?  Isn’t it?

In another age if you wanted to know whether your sword master was competent you simply looked to see if they were still alive.  This is because masters were not unknown to have been challenged without much provocation.  These days we don’t have this and ergo no Darwinian weeding out of the weak occurs – and yet we still ascribe reality and self-defence, 100% successful, look how cool and magical I am type mentalities to what we learn and teach.  Let us be frank here, none of us have ever taken knives and guns off people, nor have we defended ourselves against 50 attackers, or thrown someone to their doom.  Yes, we practice these things and ascribe a degree of Japanese “Do” to what we do, but we only have faith (not knowledge), that should we need to use what we have learnt one day in later life it will be of benefit to us – and there are plenty of stories out there where training has clearly helped many people in extreme scenarios.

My point is, your Aikido, Karate, Judo etc. teachers aren’t subject to dojo challenges and therefore as individuals you have no way of knowing whether they are any good.  The one exception to this is competitive sports where gold medals tend to speak volumes.  However, as any bujutsu teacher knows, in competition there are rules – in real life there aren’t and this alters the training environment significantly.  The difficulty is, in the training environment where bujutsu type training occurs, the only way you can know if someone is any good is by observing the principles I have highlight above; and you need to see how their techniques work on people not trained to accept them.  After you have seen this, make up your own mind.

This reminds me of a story I once heard about a ki master who attempted to demonstrate his ki technique on a non-believer.  As can be imagined nothing happened.  The ki master’s response was, ah your ki is not strong enough to feel my ki but if you come to my classes I will teach you to feel my ki.  If we translate this back to basic English what he basically said was, I can brainwash you into believing this with enough time and money.  A similar occurrence took place on National Geographic, see below.

What we teach is often ascribed as degree of “self-defence”.  No one goes to a martial arts class thinking, ah, I just fancy a bit of dance.  No, they have faith that should they need what they learn in the dojo one day it may save their life.  This is why I feel this subject is no laughing matter.  Students place a lot of faith in their teachers and so when I watch others demonstrate, observe students following those teachers, I sometimes stop and wonder what it is exactly that they are learning and in those situations I despair and lament.  Will I see that student one day in the newspaper, being a victim of crime – I pray not and yet if they were who would be at fault?

Using the “kiai master” analogy above, teachers should know better.  They have years more training above their students and should have a better understanding of the boundaries of what it is that they are doing.  If they aren’t testing those boundaries how can their students trust them?  This is why I get angry when I see others demonstrate.  When I see rubbish all I see is fakery.  Perhaps this is the way that Richard Dawkins feels when he sees Creationist type Museums, and yet we all understand why he feels the need to talk out against those.  Why then the reverence for martial arts?  Of course I understand such criticism should be polite but remaining silent has consequences also – i.e. it makes the rest of us look like fakers also and puts the lives of students at risk.

Unfortunately this is a sensitive topic and in many respects is deeply personal.  If I ever upset anyone in that respect I can only apologise.  Perhaps the lawyer in me is looking for the evidence, the case law, the statute that validates what it is that I am seeing – but in the end all I can rely on is my own judgment, which is a difficult prospect at best.  All I can do is ask for patience from my fellow martial artists.  My judgment is not infallible and my eyes don’t see everything – I am after all only human.  I am prone to making rash judgments but I am open to having my mind changed.  The question really is are you?  Do you question your own martial art?  On what basis do you hold your confidence in it?  These are questions only you can answer but as the very first Aikijutsu clip shows often such questioning is dismissed and casually ignored ever so easily.  I don't claim to be perfect in this arena, nor do I have all the answers.  My primary aim is to ask the right questions and hopefully one day, like the rest of us, I'll figure it out.  What I refuse to do is just blindly follow.