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June 2017

149. But Coach, I Don't Get It

In teaching advanced work we sometimes run into issues regarding the students’ inability to understand the material, not to mention do it correctly, internalize it, or pay it forward by teaching

The issue at hand is that very few people under about 6th or 7th (legitimate 6th or 7th dan and not “Everyone gets a trophy … er … ah ….. rank”) have the overall background, understanding, knowledge, and Budo-maturity to fully grasp the lessons; a little akin’ to teaching a blind man to paint the Sistine Chapel by using the little end of a broken ax handle instead of a paint brush.  They “Just-Can’t-Get–It” as it is completely beyond their ability to grasp, much less transmit and pay forward.  They may give it a sincere try but it just lacks something important.  You/they must have the background first or all the attempts in the world result either in their (the student’s) injury or your (the teacher’s) frustration.

This background does indeed include a lot of work in randori but is primarily based in heavy kata work.  In randori a particular movement or discovered technique may work exceptionally well against the opponent but randori being the random animal that it is, that movement may not create itself (within the context of that randori session) more than once every dozen sessions or, may only be seen once due to the uniqueness of the particular circumstances that it arose within.  Only in kata is a specific movement (and it’s details both gross and subtle) duplicated exactly the same way through each pass thus enabling a detailed study of what it is, what it does, and how it fits into the overall ryu by repetitive practice and consideration.

This lack of deep background isn’t really an issue in a dojo dedicated primarily to instruction in self-defense, in beer after work, and apres’ dojo since they are only concerned about what’s on tap; but it can become a major issue if the dojo is more focused on the preservation of old flow koryu and ancient work such as Kano’s strangulation kata or Koshiki no Kata (included in the Kodokan’s syllabus) and Kano/Fukuda’s strangulation kata (not included in the Kodokan’s syllabus).

I throw out these two examples for the simple reason that the first (Koshiki) is generally only practiced by very senior (read old guys) at the Kodokan and by a very few Aikido dojo including us.  My Sensei had trained in Japan since the early 1950’s and until introduced to it by one of Tomiki’s very senior teachers in the late 1990’s was totally unaware of its existence, much less it’s importance to Aikido and Judo principles both.  The vast majority of Judo and Aikido players never touch the work at any level and therefore are unaware.

The kata is from Kito Ryu and the principles of were openly acknowledged as being the root foundation of both Judo and Aikido in terms of its application of balance breaking, dynamic projectile throwing (each throw designed to cripple or kill the opponent) and Aiki which is deeply embedded in the techniques.  Ukemi must be exemplary as failure to respond properly or any tendency to “tighten up” or resist the dynamic energies WILL result in uke having a very bad day.

The second, the Kano/Fukuda strangulation kata, was shared with us as a pure matter of chance and fortuitous opportunity, e.g. just pure dumb luck to be there when the lessons were offered.  The work is apparently several hundred years old (we were told 1,000) and is out of a likely now-dead ryu of jujitsu.  The work consists of all standing strangulations and is paired with a counter/kaeshi waza with some applications of the neck lock using sutemi waza (sacrifice throws) to apply the neck lock to uke while he is still in the air.  The kata was supposedly intended to be the 2nd half of Nage no Kata, the front half being the ground portion and the back half being the standing portion.  Very reminiscent of some forms seen in Daito Ryu (the first waza is definitely similar with a direct breaking entry) but simultaneously very different, not to mention how subtle the correct application of a neck lock can be.

So, both of these kata take or require an in-depth understanding of all the principles involved in either Aikido or Judo.  The ability to take any type ukemi, short of jumping off the Empire State is just the beginning.  Control of posture, gaze, breathing, sen, lack of ego, relaxed mind, etc. must be fully developed before doing either of these which is why Koshiki is generally only done by old guys and why the strangulation work is lost outside Japan (if it even still exists there anywhere other than possibly in small, non-mainstream dojo). 

The understanding of principle and reflexive abilities needed just to physically survive either one of these kata is critically necessary before beginning the work and eventually understanding it.

Most students, and Sensei also for that matter, do not understand how the learning process works for martial arts and the neglect of basic to intermediate to advanced to esoteric (kakushi budo or concealed arts) kata work reflects that lack of understanding in how they train and in what (and why) they fail to understand.

As a conceptual analysis let’s assume that in order to fully grasp and utilize hyper-advanced work the martial artist must fully understand and internalize 100 distinctly different ideas.  These ideas consist of areas such as hand in a pushing position, unbendable arm, erect spinal posture, head up, head over shoulders–over–hips-over feet, working on the balls and walking on the outer edges of the feet, feet pointed straight ahead and not splayed out, proper gaze (metsuke), breathing out at the proper time, and understanding sen or timing.

Now let’s assume that understanding intuitively these first ten ideas/principles are the minimum necessary to do the basic work correctly (and to understand the basic work and teach it).  Let’s also assume that it takes a minimum of 500 to 1,000 passes through the basic work before those ten are internalized such that having to think about them while doing the kata work is no longer necessary; their having been fully internalized and made reflexive.

The same process is now necessary for the next 10 or 20 or 30 ideas such as sen-sen-no-sen, syncing with the attacker, and on and on.  To internalize these next 20 or 30 ideas means doing the next level of work with focus and another 1,000 repetitions of all the kata work.  Now the student has fully internalized 40 of the 100 ideas necessary for complete understanding of all facets of the ryu.

In effect, you have a punch-list and as you do more work at increasingly higher levels and each idea or item is worked to the point of full understanding (and each item on that punch-list is checked off), each item no longer requires conscious thought and so the subtleties of more and more advanced work become obvious since all the basics are internalized.  If this training concept is followed through on, then you eventually reach the last item and if you have done sufficient rep’s of each item or principle then all 100 become fully internalized and reflexive and not needing conscious thought for the application at speed of any waza requiring them.  Now you are ready for the esoteric work which can be a step beyond what you’ve done prior no matter how advanced it may seem.

This background work is how a ryu is preserved.  A failure to train deshi to this level means that much of the koryu can be lost because having no one with the necessary background to understand means that there is no one to teach it to.  This simply cannot be done via the randori/shiai path; only the kata path and even then, sufficient work must be done to reach that depth of knowledge.  A few passes once a year or so is not enough.

L.F. Wilkinson Kancho

The Aikibudokan

Houston, TX June 2017