Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Why study swordsmanship in the 21st century?

Why study swordsmanship in the 21st century?  This is a really good question.  Its not typical that we all walk around with swords challenging each other to duals.  Its not normal that modern warfare is carried out using steel swords anymore (why haven't we invented light sabres yet?!).  So why study swordsmanship in the 21st century - and Japanese swordsmanship at that.

I’m been grappling with this question for some time and answers come in dribs and drabs.  The answer I give below, I believe, is a rational one and one that hopefully many of you will share.  It essentially comes down to the concept of what does swordsmanship teach.  I believe that swordsmanship teaches self-defence, at least in the historical context.  There was once a time when you could be challenged to a dual, and when your skills as a swordsman would have dictated whether you lived or died on the battlefield.  Those days are of course gone, so where then does the threat originate in the 21st century?

Its interesting that many people still take up martial arts because of the threat of physical violence.  It is interesting to note that last year an estimated 22,000 muggings and robberies occurred in the UK, the majority of which occurred without physical injury to the victim.  Thats 0.037% of the UK’s population.  

However, in contrast 24,000 people died year from diabetes and 9.3% of the population continue to suffer from it.  64% of adults were classed as obese, 124,000 individuals suffered from heart attack, a massive 44% of people were clinically diagnosed with stress, and 9% of the population suffered with depression.  A massive 80% suffered from a bad or weak back, 47% suffered from repeat chronic migraines, and 51% suffered from asthma.  The list could go on and on.  

Coming back then to the point in question, by trade I’m a risk manager.  I assess and advise people of the risks they are exposed to, the likelihood of them occurring and what options are available to them.  I don't believe I have to tell you that the risk of physical death or injury from poor health is more likely than that from physical violence.  This to me is what swordsmanship directly combats in the modern world.  This is what modern self-declare guards against.  

Martial arts use traditional methods to allow the practitioner to reshape and redevelop their body.  We use traditional systems and concepts to challenge and stimulate the brain.  Patterns, forms and routines are used to teach.  They are also used to better learn fundamental concepts of what it is that you are doing, whether these be timing, balance or distance routines.  According to a study published by Neurology in 2010, these brain teasers also help prevent dementia in those who practice them.  Now that, to me, is an interesting byproduct of training.

Swordsmanship has numerous benefits over hand to hand combat systems.  In Judo, Jujutsu, Aikido and Karate physical contact is required to train with another.  These sports are often deemed high impact in that you are often thrown and land on the mat with a thud.  To limit the impact the person being thrown learns to break their fall (break fall), thereby limiting the impact.  The problem is that an impact still occurs.  This is usually unproblematic when you are in your 20s, not so unproblematic by the time you are in your 50s and 60s.  Swordsmanship doesn't suffer from this in that there is little physical impact on your body, bar the movements that you yourself are making.   This results in swordsmanship being nick named, the “grandpa” art, in that you can keep doing it until you are very advanced in age.  Threat of injury and degenerative bodily ageing rarely stop a practitioner from practicing, meaning that practitioners can continue to keep themselves socially mobile and physical fit for longer thereby improving one’s quality of life.

Anyone who has ever done a hard sword session can attest to the physical demands it can place on the body.  This core bodily routine is an excellent way of losing weight and keeping in shape.  On the contrary, the speed or variability of the routine can be tailored to a slower audience allowing the session to be more mentally challenging and less physically demanding should the occasion require.  This, I feel, is the great versatility of swordsmanship.  It can be made to carter for all needs depending on one’s audience.

Swordsmanship isn't however just a session of physical wellbeing, it still continues to teach the traditional elements of martial arts such as:-  how to use the body as a weapon, how to use a sword with precision and how to defend one’s self in a fight.  But in a true fashion of self-defence I also believe that swordsmanship also protects it’s practitioners against the greater threat of injury or death, that being the threat of poor health.  With this in mind, this is why I believe we should study swordmanship earnestly.

So why Japanese swordsmanship?  Firstly, Japanese swordsmanship has survived the transition into the 21st century, unlike many western forms of swordsmanship.  Secondly, the impact of zen on the martial arts has meant that the Japanese typically look at martial arts a little differently from westerners.  In the west when boxing and sword fighting were no longer deemed the latest in warfare we switched those arts to sports.  In Japan they switched those arts to ascetics.  The Japanese method of ascetics often means that older unfit individuals can still continue to train and benefit from something that is both historically authentic but which meets the physical needs of the practitioner more relevantly.  After all, sports are great when you’re in your 20s and 30s, but beyond those years their appeal begins to wane for some.

It is with all the above in mind and to this end that I would conclude that to be passionate about swordsmanship, to fully train in it, and to fully understand it, is to fully protect one’s self, and one’s family, from the greatest threat posed - that of poor health, not just physical violence.  I believe, and I might be biased here, that the art I study and teach - Shinkendo - is the exact embodiment of what such a style of swordsmanship should be in that it is interesting, exciting, and fun, but it also has an massive beneficial impact on one’s physical wellbeing and health the longer you train in it.  This to me is good self-defence and exact why you should train in swordsmanship.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

On the importance of attending seminars

Within the last 2 months I have had a pleasure of teaching firstly on the BAA Summer School Seminar, held over 2 days in Yorkshire; and secondly at the 1 day Introduction to Shinkendo Seminar held in Milton Keynes.  This has reminded me of the importance of attending such events.

The phrase martial arts is effectively made up to two words (rather self-evident).  The first is martial, which is defined in the dictionary as being “suitable for, or associated with war or the armed forces”.  The second is art, which is defined in the dictionary as being “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form”.

In the first instance the study or suitability of what we learn, specifically relating to “war” can only truly be learned in parallel with ours.  As we often explain, a martial art school, at its core, provides you with a platform to learn key skills whether that be distancing, timing, balance or power generation.  Many of the techniques taught are at their simplest, expressions of these ideas.  However, to truly understand and learn these principles a significant level of experience is required.  This experience must be gained in association with a training partner, and the more training partners you have the greater the width of the experience you gain.  People often ask me whether my martial art works?  This is often the wrong question.  The correct question should be, can I make my martial art work?  And for me to give an answer to this question would require a great breath of experience encompassing a wide variety of people, gained via first hand experience.  This is because if I can only make my techniques work on small skinny guys weaker than me then a question on whether I can really make it work, and whether it is in fact suitable are inevitable consequences of this.

The interesting thing about martial arts is the various breath of styles out there.  From Karate, Judo, Jujutsu, Hapkido, MMA, UFC to KungFu and Crane.  What becomes even more interesting is that even within those styles, such as Karate, these often break down further into system such as Shotokan, Wado-Ryu or Kempo.  Even further these styles break down again, from Soft to Hard styles to Competition Focused, Kata Focused or pure martial/street training.  Martial arts are just so wide and yet they cater for absolutely EVERYONE.  The reason people pick their martial art is often various, but the reason they stay is purely because that style offers them something that they are after, which is often very personal and distinct.  This is a key reason that the “my martial art is better than your martial art” is often a flawed argument.  Aikido is a key example of this.  I may be late aged, a little unfit, an office worker, and crave some social interaction.  The style that may appeal to me maybe very soft, focus a lot on internal/spiritual ideas, and may lack a high degree of martial elements (i.e. hard style training).  Whilst it may not be for everyone it does offer “me” what I am after and to that degree few can argue against that.  You may disagree with my choice but ultimately that is the benefit of consumer choice.  This idea ultimately relates back to the point raised prior of art being the “expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”; i.e. the art I choose to study ultimately forms the basis of how I choose to express myself.  As I’m an individual my choice of expression is rarely likely to match that of yours.  For reference my own martial desire relate to high martial practicability, scientific biomechanics and pure logical efficiency - but that maybe a symptom of the way my brain is wired.

On the other completely opposite side of the spectrum is the reality that techniques evolve and change.  My martial experience may offer me a new insight, which allows me to be “creative” with what I have experienced through my training with others.  This hard earned wisdom may help me to develop or change my techniques in new directions, directions that I may deem to be more efficient, applicable or suitable.  It is arguable that as martial “artists” this creativity/imaginative element is our duty to learn and refine.  This ultimately is why we continue to train isn't it?  To become more effective and efficient at what we do?

So heres the crux of it all - seminars are just so important to attend because they directly feed into what it means to be a martial artist.  Firstly they offer you the opportunity to train with new people who you have never trained with before.  To put your metal to the test and see whether what you do is truly suitable when done against someone who is not your usual routine training partner.  Secondly they offer you an opportunity to see A) what others have in terms of their style (whats the differences between theirs and yours); and B) they give you an opportunity to see the “creativity” and “imagination” element of others and what wisdom their training has brought them that they might be able to share with you.  In some instances they may have gone down a completely different path from where you are, and thats okay.  In others they have be a little further along your path than you and may provide you with a small new insight that helps you progress just ever so much.  Ultimately I can’t stress the importance enough of just how important and beneficial it is for us as martial artists to attend these events with your fellow budoka should you get the opportunity.  The opportunities they offer you to grow cannot be espoused enough.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Martial Arts vs. Bodybuilding

The other day I was discussing bodybuilding with this personal trainer friend of mine and it got me thinking.  Many of the things he described directly relate to Martial Arts.  For this blog I thought I’d recap our discussion for you.

The conversation began in terms of how much weight could I bench press.  We’ll call the trainer Al for the purposes of this blog and to protect identities.  Al explained, no matter how much I thought I could bench press he personally guaranteed me that in reality I could only bench press half that.  Looking at him incredibly I asked him to explain why he felt that to be true.

Al explained to me, most of the guys pushing weights in gyms all had this idea of what pushing weights looked like.  He felt that on the face of it, it looked easy.  Barbell up, barbell down - easy.  Except Al felt it was anything but easy.  Al said to me, yeah, most of the guys in the gym looked big but looking inward you’d miss the context.  Al felt that the context was time.  These people had been training for so long, throwing anything and everything at themselves, that eventually some stuff stuck, but if you asked them what had contributed to their growth inevitably they wouldn't really know nor understand.  Al then made a bold prediction.  He proclaimed that if a person truly understood what they were doing they could get big and ripped in under two years.  How big I asked him, Schwarzenegger big he explained.  It was at this point that Al really caught my interest.

In my mind I started doing the math and relating it back to martial arts. It is true that over the years I have met many individuals who have trained for longer than I, but occasionally some were nowhere near my level.  On reflection this was often because anatomically I have a better idea of what was going on than they, and my own teacher taught me the principles and ideas behind what I was doing rather than the up - down mentality.

Back to the topic of how much weight could I bench press.  Al turned to me and said, 99% of the people in the gym don’t really understand the technique of bench pressing.  They all rock up at the gym expecting it to be easy.  In terms of the tempo they see guys on the internet going a million miles an hour and automatically assume that that’s how its done.  Again Al said, watching it in this way misses context.  In the first, those going fast who know what they’re doing have years and years of body conditioning behind them hence why they go at that speed.  In the second, there are those who truly don't know but feel they do know, and matching there technique and speed would be the blind leading the blind.

Sitting there I said to Al, is there really that much technique behind a bench press - surely its up, down - go home.  Al laughed and said, you’re as bad as the rest of them.  Al explained to me, that to do one repetition correctly the arms and chest had to be aligned just right.  With the bar balanced on the chest, weight applied against the muscle, feeling the correct tension in the fibre, you lowered the bar keeping the weight applied all the time.  Slowly the bar goes down, once the bar touches your chest, slowly push the bar back up, never allowing the muscle tension to slack or slip.  The speed you go down must match the speed coming up, whilst keeping arm and wrist alignment all in the same place.  Al said, doing a bench press like this, concentrating on all elements at once, your muscle will struggle.  To cope you’ll have to drop the weight, hence half what you can currently do.

Truly incredibly I sat there flabbergasted.  Al concluded, most come to the gym, do their number crunching and go home.  After a while they make no gains and get frustrated.  Shortly after they quit and never come back.  So there it is, to a do a bench press you have to concentrate on body alignment, correct balance and hand positioning, and the timing and speed at which you move.  All of that directly applies to martial arts also.  

Sitting there I connected the dots and conceded to Al’s point.  He was right.  Doing the math it made me think.  How often do people see jiyu-waza (free form), done at speed, either unarmed or with sword (tachiuchi), and think - ah thats how its done.  You see it at seminars.  You show a technique or a form and everyone rushes off to badly execute it over and over again in a zorro like fever.  As a teacher I often sit back shacking my head thinking, yes you’ve seen what I’ve done - just - but you lack the context.  I’ve been doing this for years hence my speed.  If you want to gain that speed, slow down, do it exactly, and concentrate on the exact technique.  Concentrate on your body positioning/posture, your balance and your timing as that is far more important than any speed you think you might have.  I knew this, I often lectured on it, and here I was hearing my own thoughts thrown back at me but in a different context - i.e. bodybuilding rather than martial arts.

For my part, these days when I train with others I often abandon the speed and concentrate solely on my form.  Is it exact?  Is it economical?  Could I improve my balance etc.?  By doing this my speed increases naturally, I don't aim for it, its a natural byproduct.  After all, speed masks a 1000 mistakes.  If you want speed don't rush what you’re doing - slow down.  Make your technique exact and speed will be a product of that economical body movement.

On reflection I often think that it is perhaps this method of training that has helped me advance rapidly given my relative time served.  Anyone training in the same way could achieve the same results.  Knowing this I had to stop and agree - this PT knew what he was talking about and probably could get you to Arnold like proportions within 2 years, providing you knew how to do all the techniques correctly.  In my mind it was easy to see how this directly correlated to martial arts.  I’m not sure I’d repeat the same bold claim but I do share the sentiment.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Creating a Milton Keynes dedicated dojo

To all my students.

As many of you may know, I began Shinkendo UK in 2008 with the express purpose of promoting and regulating Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu within the UK.  Since its formation the organisation has hosted Toshishiro Obata Kaiso twice and Nidai Soke Yukishiro Obata once.  Our local dojo has taught classes non-stop, uninterrupted for some 7 years without break.  Annual seminars and gradings have been run and organised - and overall everything has been run pretty smoothly.

In all this time a dream of mine has always been to one day open a full time dojo - a true UK honbu.  This dojo would be available to students 24/7 and provide an authentic feeling and a degree of thrill factor to students who train in it.  Take for example the superb looking dojo owned by Sensei War Lewis:

I must admit that every time I look at War’s dojo I feel envious.  

Learning Japanese Martial Arts is rewarding, but it is also my feeling that the environment in which you learn is equally important.  Over the years I have trained in halls that are filthy, where fire alarms have gone off non-stop and where the temperature has been sub-zero.  Where the mats are not owned by us, have on occasion been covered in blood and have been ripped up and ruined by others.  The upshot is that I have begun to feel that renting or using space owned by others begins to hinder the overall experience of learning, and thus reduces the student’s enjoyment and experience.  Who of you wouldn’t like to train in the dojo pictured above?

I have begun to research what is needed to create a venue of our very own, to call our home.  The costs are not terribly prohibitive and overall I feel that the proposition could be turned into a reality by Q1 2016.  However, as you may recall - the organisation runs non-profit for the purposes of promoting and regulating Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu only.  To this degree we would, as an organisation, have to fund raise in order to meet our initial outlay - and that is where you come in.

Currently we are taking steps to upgrade our website, which is long overdue.  It is expected that this will go live shortly.  Once done we will be launching a “kickstarter” type programme, which I hope and pray you will all be positive towards.  My plea is that you share this link with all your friends, family, enemies, pets and anyone who will listen - with the express plea of assisting us in raising the required startup fee.  This campaign has not yet been launched but nevertheless a preview can be seen below:

Please don't share this link yet until the campaign has officially been launched.

So why am I doing this?  Picture the benefits and ease of access to a dojo that is 24/7.  Greater frequency in when you train allows a wider breadth of chance/ability to train.  Next is the ease at organising weekend seminars, sessions with other teachers (e.g. I'd like to invite Sensei Joe Thambu over), ability to have private lessons and tameshigiri events.  Its all easy and cost effective when the venue belongs to you.  Another benefit is the thrill factor and the enjoyment factor students get from being able to train in such a dedicated environment.

So what are the draw backs?  Well, the likelihood is that our mat space would reduce.  Our existing hall is big and any venue I get would be smaller than what we currently have.  Also, the fees would need to go up to represent the new cost of the venue and to reflect the scheduled availability of training.  This would require your buy in.  If we raised the current fees in advance of our launch this would certainly help speed the process and reduce the startup outlay we need to raise in the initial.  This again would require your buy in and support.

Overall, the project itself will require a lot of work but I am confident and motivated to do it.  Its been a long term ambition of mine and seeing others make it a reality has given me the push to do it also.  The benefits out way the draw backs to me - and the increased availability should hopefully feel very positive to you, plus the improved training environment.  The purpose of this blog post is to keep you appraised of whats going on behind closed doors, to put you on notice of our intentions and to begin to secure your buy in.  To this degree I strongly encourage all of you (past, present or future students) to please provide feedback on this proposition at the earliest convenience.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

25th anniversary of the founding of Shinkendo

The 10th of May 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of Shinkendo, which began in 1990.  its only right to start this off saying Happy Birthday Shinkendo and say thank you to Obata Kaiso for his dedication to our art.  To put this period into perspective:-  Judo began 1882, Shotokan Karate began 1930s and Aikido began 1930s.  When put along side these classical martial arts Shinkendo is relatively new.  This becomes apparent when we consider the volumes of literature written about each of these arts.  Lets consider the stats:

1.   Google

“Karate” - 94, 700,000
“Judo” - 52,400,000
“Aikido” - 15,400,000
“Jujutsu” - 625,000
“Shinkendo” - 73,800
“Aikibujutsu” - 16,200
“Aikijutsu” 1,190

2.   Amazon

“Karate” - 5,587
“Judo” - 2,582
“Aikido” - 1,738
“Jujutsu” - 406
“Aikijutsu” - 10 
“Shinkendo” - 4
“Aikibujutsu” - 2

In one respect these stats are expected.  Those arts with the highest hits have greater periods of maturity behind them.  So here is the questions to my fellow Senior Instructors, is it time that we began to contribute to the future of our art and begin to write our own books and literature with the direct aim of spreading, developing and maturing what we have learnt directly from Obata Kaiso?

This applies equally to Aikibujutsu.  The name of our organisation is Aikibujutsu Tanren Kenkyukai.  This effectively means that we're a research society, attempting to understand and re-learn classical Samurai Aikijutsu.  To my fellow Aikibujutsu Senior Instructors; over the years we have all trained with various martial artists and experienced many different styles.  All of our classes have slightly different spins and points of focus to each other.  Do we likewise not owe it to the future of our organisation to begin to put our experiences and knowledge down on paper in order to spread, grow and expand what we have accumulated from Kaiso, and others, so far?

Finally, Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu are international organisations with dojos on nearly every continent in the world.  Is it time that we began to build bridges with our foreign cousins with a direct aim of getting together Senior Instructors and allowing them each periods to teach slots?  This format of Seminars is already common and well established within the Karate, Aikido and Kendo communities.

I myself have no answers to these questions, neither can these questions be answered by one individual alone.  I would therefore directly challenge my colleagues to consider these questions and offer their thoughts.

Saturday, 25 April 2015


I recently picked up my copy of Karate Jutsu by Funakoshi and had one of those light bulb moments.  Essentially this relates to explanations of form and concentration.  I’ve been thinking about this for the past 2 weeks and thought I’d share my thoughts on this with you all.

Lets take this standard martial arts flyer:

It’s amazing that all martial arts flyers I come across usually include the word “concentration” as a key benefit of training.  So this got me thinking, does Aikido really offer improved concentration.  In Karate, elements of concentration are more apparent.  They occur in the breathing patterns, the stances, the timing of movements - all this through the medium of Kata.  Take this clip for example, look at the concentration:

As an aside note, as a kid that was my favourite competition kata also.  Anyway, few can argue how well these Kata are executed.  The dedication, commitment and concentration required in regular training to carry out a demonstration of this standard is just applaudable.

So turning then to my art, Aikido/Aikibujutsu, I think we have all seen really bad Aiki demonstrations where there appears to be no form, no stances, no concentration - just two really over weight people waddling at each other and magically falling over.  For today I don’t propose giving a YouTube example of this as we’ve all seen it.  In truth our art is not alone, you see this in Judo, Karate, Jujutsu etc. also.

I must admit that because of the philosophy often ascribed to Aiki by the Ueshiba brand, this inability to apply form to Aikido is more common in our art than others.  In fact, many argue that Aikido should have no form at all and hence they don’t bother trying to develop it.  This reminds me of something Joe Thambu Shihan said to me many years ago, Aikido starts with the kamae (stance), without the stance you cannot do the kihon doza (basic body movements), without the kihon doza  you cannot do the basic kihon waza (basic techniques), without the kihon waza you cannot move onto free form practice.  For Joe, each segment of Aikido requires concentrated effort on a key element of training.  Without the basic stance, ultimately you can’t do the techniques nor put them into practice - it’s all connected.  It is near impossible to turn up one day and achieve the end goal without going through the stages of progression and really perfecting each in turn.

So lets see how this looks when concentration is applied to the basic movements in Aikido:

Notice that all the movements are exact and specific.  There is no lazy walking around without purpose, lack of discipline or casual body swagger.  Instead there is specific concentration applied to the form itself, on the movements, on the stance and timing.  This, for me, is how we should be aiming to train, especially at the start of our Aikido journey.

Once you’ve mastered that, Thambu Sensei offers us a really good example of what we should be aiming to achieve as an end goal.

Coming back then to the point in question, does martial arts offer improved concentration - yes, but only if the training regime allows for this.  This improvement in concentration is achieved by focusing on our stance, body movement, timing and technique.  Training which offers formality, like Karate Kata, specifically in terms of bowing, kamae, and engagement with get other, offers a centralised and focused way of improving one’s concentration.  It is my belief that we should attempt to employ such feeling in our own training least we fail to achieve a key achievement of our training, namely ‘concentration’.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Aikido vs MMA/UFC

Earlier today I responded to an online comment regarding the usual Aikido vs MMA type mud slinging match.  My response is below:

“This really depends on the terminology used. Aikido at its fundamental is basically a system which teaches you how to use your body effectively. It teaches good balance control, body coordination, weight distribution, timing etc. All of these things ARE, arguably, used in the octagon.

Aiki as a principle, the famous blending principle, would very rarely, if ever, work in the octagon. It was designed to work on the battle field where people would charge you at speed in an uncaring, over committed way.

Aiki-jujustu style techniques, few if any of these would, in my opinion, work in the octagon. For example, nikajo and kotegeishi, when made practical are as Mike said, small joint manipulation designed to incapacitate an individual attempting to take a weapon off you. These techniques owe their origins to feudal Japanese castle laws, such as you can't be higher than a feudal leader, hence sawari waza, and you can't hit or shed an equals blood hence techniques such as hijishime and to a lesser degree ikkajo etc. where control of an opponent, rather than incapacitation of him is the important ingredient.

The point being is that the octagon is a very different environment from that of the original envisaged arena for aiki-jujustu techniques. Even big throws such as koshinage, yama arashi, iriminage etc. are unlikely to work, in a similar way to how it's rare to see judo throws in the octagon. This is unsurprising as the main aim of the arena these days appears to revolve around getting your opponent to the mat as quickly as possible and then grapple.”

It was this that last point that really got me thinking, do people really know what they mean when they have the whole Aikido vs MMA slagging match?  If I cited this as an example of Aikido vs MMA, would you accept it?

Some would, others wouldn’t.  They’d say it doesn’t bare relevance to MMA, or the UFC.  Others would simply say it’s not real.  Okay, I know this has little relevance to the argument directly, but the following clip is an example of “real”.

Does anyone honestly expect that any martial art, including BJJ, has a good counter for being blind sided?  I believe that the real argument is complete and utter rubbish.  Even UFC is not real to a degree.  It has rules, limitations, techniques that aren’t allowed.  Real, in the strict sense, has none of those.

So then lets consider the MMA/UFC argument.  Why is my first clip not of relevance?  I believe it is because what these individuals have become accustomed to seeing is the typical take downs that have become the staple of MMA/UFC.  These take downs lead into grappling, which leads into submission.  Watch the following clip:

I chose this clip specifically as it was from UFC 2 - all the way at the beginning.  Back then MMA was truly MMA.  Karate guys fought Jujutsu guys and you waited to see who won.  Back then it was truly entertaining.  The problem many encountered was that for the ring, grappling was king.  A further problem was, very few knew anything about grappling so inevitably Gracie remained king of the tournament for a good few years, that was, until Ken Shamrock showed up.

My point in all this should be an obvious one; I believe that when people have the whole Aikido vs MMA discussion, what they truly mean, without knowing it is, Aikido vs Grappling.  If I phrased the discussion with that suffix would any of you be surprised when I say, Aikido doesn’t stand a chance, on the mat, against grappling.  Aikido, simply was not designed to do that - but then again, neither was boxing.  None of that comes as a surprise, does it?

Friday, 27 March 2015


I hope to keep today’s post short.  Who knows how that is going to go?!  Before I start, I write this article light heartedly, though it may sound like a bit of a rant.  If it does, it’s not, think of me laughing whilst typing.

A number of years ago I was in the hombu and I remember Sensei Obata took the time to take me to one side and told me about this one kanji he had hanging on his wall.  The kanji he explained was of “yoshin’.  This kanji had been sent to him, from Japan, by one of his old teachers.  The meaning he explained was very important.

Yoshin he explained essentially relates to the idea of, how far can I go before I give up.  In combat, or a fight, often the person who wants to win the most, is the person who does.  It becomes very interesting that it’s most simplistic, combat is often won by the person who wants to win the most rather than the person who has the best technique.

Sensei explained to me, in the dojo, when he was an uchi-dachi, they would often run classes where the desire was to absolutely destroy yourselves.  These types of classes were designed to break you down to make you realise just how far you could go.  All these years later I continue to find this idea rather fascinating when reading the diaries of prisons of war.  Many recount how they would live off virtually nothing and be torchered all day and yet still survive.  The key point they would often recount is that they themselves were surprised at just how far they could go.

The act of learning yoshin becomes interesting for me.  My grandfather used to have a saying, “you have plenty of time to rest when you die”.  At his mid 80s he still gardens daily and goes out for 4 hours drivers at a time (and not at a slow speed either).  His vitality is in itself fascinating to me.  He would explain to me, life is short, live an action filled life.

It is perhaps with these two role models in mind that I have always strived to full every opportunity in my life.  I am still trying to find where my limits lie and I am perhaps famous for filling my time up to overfilling capacity.  It is this attitude, I would say, that has helped me gain 5 black belts, 3 degrees and 2 professional qualifications before I was even 30!

As I’m now getting older I begin to wonder what is up with the younger generation.  Do they not have the same role models to learn off as I did?  To explain, often students call in and tell me that they are unable to attend class, often for various reasons.  One year one student went through 51 weeks of excuses, a total of 102 excuses over the year - attending one week out of the whole year!  At the end of the year our analysis of the excuses revealed that the person had an injury to nearly every body part (more than once), had moved house 4 times, 4 grandmothers had died (don’t you just have the two?!) and a host of other drivel.

I remember being a kid and hearing a story from my then Karate teacher.  He told me that one year, when he was a kid, he went to Japan to train but broke his big toe in the first week.  Rather than miss out he trained on a broken toe through out the rest of his time there.  This never really made much of an impression on me until I was much older, abroad in the hombu dojo and suffering my own injuries.  Like my Karate teacher, I resolved to just put up with it rather than miss out.

The above story some times make me chuckle when I get calls saying, I’ve stubbed a toe, got a cold, have a headache and as a consequence cannot attend class tonight.  Did you know that England apparently has the weakest necks in Europe because of our whiplash motor claims compensation culture (search Google to verify).  Perhaps we should add to that, the least able to deal with minor afflictions.  I say this very light heartedly as I believe that the British are in reality some of the toughed SOBs in the world.  How do I know this?  Because we conquered half the planet at some point.  I am proof of that, being from the colonies!  So is this perhaps a cultural shift afflicting the young only?

Of equal propensity is the surprise I get when some tell me, I’ve just got in from work and can’t come to tonight as I’m tied, or I have an exam/assignment and am unable to make class tonight.  Now I am by no way shape or form advocating that anyone mess up exams for class.   That would clearly highlight an issue with priorities, which I could not agree with.  I do however sometimes wonder how so many are able to cope with so little.  When I was in university, studying full time, I also worked full time.  When I was studying my masters degree full time I also worked, ran all my classes, planned a wedding and an international Shinkendo seminar - all at the same time.  Yeah, it was tough, but I got through it and it taught me that doing all that was still not my limit.

At this stage in my life I am still learning my yoshin.  Last year I lost someone dear to me and it made me realise, life is short.  All of a sudden I didn't feel so young anymore and it made me think, how much time do I have left.  This year, I myself, have been ill for nearly 3 months and am only now just recovering.  One thing all this has taught me is, live a filled life and use up every second of your time.  Understand your limits before you die.  Know that at the end I could not have lived a more actioned packed life than I have, I’ve never made excuses and I’ve done far more with my time than others.  Isn’t it funny how much Sensei Obata and my grandfather truly knew.  They all tried to tell me - if only I had listened to them earlier, how much more could I have accomplished?

Having a son, who one day will sit back and look at my life critically, one of the things that drives me now is, if I expect my son to do better than me (a desire of every father) then I’ve got to set the standard really high.  All I can do is aim high, live a filled life and continue to discover my breaking point.  Once I’ve discovered it, I need to conquer it and raise that bar again.  In doing that hopefully one day that bar will be set super high, and in the act of exceeding me hopefully my son will achieve something great.  In a way I think this is exactly what my role models did for me.  I often feel it is my duty to pay that forward and so I attempt to continue to do so.  I would challenge the rest of you to join me in this pursuit as hopefully together we can all edge each other forward.

Monday, 2 March 2015

ISF Membership

For those of you in the know, you may be aware that this year marks 10 years of International Shinkendo Federation (ISF) membership for me.  Yes, thats 10 years of Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu with Sensei Obata.  

I started my martial arts career many years ago in Shotokan Karate, as part the Japanese Karate Association (JKA).   Later I trained Tomiki Aikido as part of the British Aikido Association (BAA).  Through my experiences I have come to realise, in contrast to the convention, that key membership to the mother body is of central importance.  I aim, this month, to attempt to put my thoughts on this matter to paper.

I will begin by offering a theoretical case study.  Let’s imagine that you’re in need of a doctor.  Who do you feel more comfortable with?

Option A)
-  A doctor who went to Harvard, studied full time and obtained a good quality medical degree
-  A doctor who learnt from, and studied with, the most well known doctors in his profession
-  A doctor who is currently certified and continues to be certified with an established medical association

Option B)
-  A doctor who went to University of Nowhere, studied part time and obtained a medical degree of some various quality
-  A doctor who learnt questionable practices, and studied with, people no one has ever heard of
-  A doctor who is currently certified and continues to be certified with a dubious association, perhaps one of his own creation

Let us remember firstly that doctor A and B may be just as good as each other.  A good university and trade association is not a guarantor of quality, but it sure as hell is a good start when installing consumer confidence in others. 

Considering then - a good trade association.  Being a member of a good association offers something tangible, i.e. they set your professional standards & behaviours, they accredit individuals to acceptable levels of professionalism and offer competency guidelines.  All this is done to promote confidence, to the public, of the practitioner in question and the trade that they practice.

Another thing associations do for its members is ensure that they carry out appropriate CPD (continual professional development).  This is done to ensure that the practitioners knowledge doesn’t become stagnant and out of date.  It likewise ensures that current practices are disseminated and past practices, that have fallen out of use, are no longer employed.  The quantity and quality of CPD is typically pre-set with a specified quantity required in order to renew licences at year end.

One of my students recently asked me, if I went to Japan what would the teachers over there think of me and the martial arts that I practice.  The reality is that they probably have a passing knowledge of Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu – nothing in-depth.  However, they all know and acknowledge the prowess of Sensei Obata.  Which brings me onto the second point, the fame and acclaim of the teachers you align with.

So what would they make of the student?  Well they’d probably be more than happy to accept them, as a guest, because they’re affiliated with Sensei Obata.  That is what affiliation with his name brings.  Contrast this with Sensei X, who no one knows.  The same result is unlikely to occur.  Rather in contrast, you’d probably be expected to don a white belt and start from scratch until you can prove otherwise.  That is after all expected given the constant rise of McDojos.

I have written in the past about my thoughts of the Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu schools of martial arts so I don't plan to rehash these arguments here.  Instead I will summarise my past thoughts by saying, I consider Sensei Obata’s schools to be of an ivy league standard.

You may now be questioning how all this fits in with martial arts, but to me there is a direct synergy.  For a start, martial arts practitioners offer a fully functioning, and healthy body (in some instances) to another to use and practice with.  That other person is then trusted not to damage or wreck that body.  Of course mistakes may occasionally happen, as they do with Harvard educated Medical Doctors, but the reality is that because a good foundation has been installed in them, at the start of their education, mistakes tend to occur considerably less than they otherwise would.  That is, after all, why so many are prepared to pay large sums of money for these doctors.  The quality of your starting school has a direct correlation to the levels of the competency and quality of practice that the practitioner may later demonstrate.  That is why students of ivy league schools are so well sought after.

Likewise, as with trade associations, martial arts associations set standards.  They accredit students to a pre-set level of competency.  Ability is acknowledged by students meeting a pre-set syllabus of requirements, which is set independently.  This is, itself, important given that a lot of what we do cannot be tested fully safely in the dojo and out of it.  These associations also offer points of escalation, i.e. if you find something difficult to deal with you can refer to the headquarters and request advice.  They also offer ways to deal with disputes between members, where these inevitably arise.

In martial arts, I have over the years found the trade to be a highly political environment.  Arguments and disputes are common practice with many leading to fall outs and break ups, which in some instances have led whole associations to split up.  In these instances points of escalation are vitally important to ensure vitality.

Being a member of a martial arts association offers the ability to train to a set standard of professionalism.  If you go anywhere in the world you should theoretically experience Shinkendo classes in the same fashion, with techniques being taught identically, e.g. Happogiri is the same the world over!  Likewise, should you wish to attend a branch organisation, who are appropriately affiliated, you would be offered direct access.  In terms of CPD (continual development), if you wanted to attend a seminar or training weekend with a foreign instructor, such as Obata Sensei, your membership and licences are your passport to this right.

A key feature of all of the above should now begins to stand out.  Like trade associations the point in question is, professionalism.  My career to date has made me feel that I fit into option A.   To explain:  I studied at a good school (the honbu), with a well-known teacher (Sensei Obata) and I belong to the International Shinkendo Federation (with over 100 branch dojos the world over, with dojos on every continent in the world).  I continue to get my annual CPD through constant practice with our association heads (Obata Sensei and Yukishiro Soke).  Because of this I feel that as a professional instructor I am doing all the right things.

At this time of year, when your annual memberships are due, I’d welcome you to reflect on this and think about my sentiments.  Like any good doctor, the day he decides he no longer wants to be accredited to the British Medical Association (their governing body) is the day he should cease to be a doctor (a current legal requirement coincidentally).  I am proud of my affiliated association, the ISF, and the teachers who teach as part of it.  Because of this should I ever see the day that I decide to resign my membership I pledge to act like any good doctor would and resign from martial arts full stop as a consequence of my decision.