Wednesday, March 24, 2010

From Static Postures to Moving Postures

Static Postures are a common practice in internal Chinese martial arts, and are especially prominent in Tai Chi, Ba Gua, and Hsing-I. They are trained by holding the body in a certain shape over an extended period of time, and make up a subset of Chi Kung, which literally translates into “energy work.” Static Postures are the key to understanding structural stability, initially through stillness, and eventually through motion.

Though simple in concept, static postures can be difficult to maintain, and as a consequence they are often neglected or undertrained. Postures that appear quite simple and natural, such as holding the arms above the head or supporting the body with one leg, may result in rapid fatigue even for people used to lifting heavy weights. It is not uncommon to see those unaccustomed to such practice quiver and shake as the postural muscles tire.

While it may appear to an outside observer that the martial artist is "just standing there," this is not the case. There are a series of requirements the the martial artist must consistently and mindfully fulfill to ensure the training is meaningful. Certain details may vary slightly from art to art, teacher to teacher, but many particulars are common across the board.

Regardless of the shape, the martial artist should be aware of the physical center, where the balance of the body naturally settles. Known as hara in Japanese and tantien in Chinese, this is an infinitely small point that is located approximately one to two inches below the navel. The next idea is to relax into that point, which allows the knees to bend, the hips and body to sink, and the shoulders and elbows to drop. The chin should tuck and head should be held as if it is suspended by a string, which means the neck is lifted and the spine is stretched. Once these essentials are attained, the goal is to maintain them while disallowing any unnecessary movement. At this point, the martial artist should focus on the breath, which should expand and contract the lower abdomen due to the rise and fall of the diaphragm. 

The purpose of holding Static Postures is to train the body to be structurally sound so that stability can be preserved in movement. When in motion, the requirements of the static postures continue to apply, and the ideal is that at any point in time, whether performing technique or walking across a room, the martial artist should be able to stop and hold in perfect balance. In this way, movement can be understood as a continuous string of Static Postures infinitely linked together.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Passive and Aggressive Ukemi

In the martial arts, the ability to fall is crucial. This practice is known as ukemi in Japanese, and it is really an art in itself.

Ukemi is almost always taught, at at least initially, as a method of receiving and managing an opponent's attack. In order to generalize the learning process, ukemi is often demonstrated as a series of shapes that one can assume when falling in a certain direction. Of course, these shapes vary, but quite often the forms consist of a backward breakfall, a side breakfall to the right and left, and a forward rotating fall. The shapes must be practiced exhaustively so that that the body can form reflexively and the mind is not perturbed when physical balance is lost. Once the fear or aversion to falling is overcome, the martial artist can focus on deeper aspects of the arts, and truly begin to develop.   

To adopt a stiff and defensive attitude is the best way to restrict development, as Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, points out in his article, "The Importance of Ukemi." There is no shame in performing a forward roll when thrown toward the floor — it is infinitely more graceful and tactically advantageous to receive the ground with minimum impact in order to swiftly regain the feet, than the alternative, which is to nose-dive in order prove the opponent didn't score the point. This mindset is very important, and is appropriate in the dojo as well as the battlefield. By receiving a throw without receiving damage, one can persevere at full capacity. Injury can only hinder one's potential. 

Ukemi, however, need not be restricted solely to defense. The mass of the body in conjunction with the acceleration of gravity can yield a significant force, and the application of this force in an intelligent direction can yield expedient results. Then ukemi becomes sutemi, which in all practical purposes is ukemi with aggressive intention. Sutemi occurs when one uses an ukemi form offensively, effectively throwing oneself in order to defeat an opponent. It is a sound concept: Attach the opponent firmly onto the back and take a rolling fall, and the opponent, in addition to being tossed, conveniently functions as a cushion from the ground. In the martial arts, Sutemi waza occurs most prominently in Judo, for three specific reasons: First, judo free practice encourages participants to attack and defend quite vigorously, so sometimes one must literally throw oneself in order to throw the opponent; second, if one is in the process of being thrown, performing ukemi in a specific manner can allow one to take control of the momentum of the exchange and reciprocate a counter-throw; and third, Judo techniques, when performed properly, are quite safe — so even if a participant is thrown with considerable force onto a matted floor, it is no big deal provided the participant knows how to fall.

The practical use of sutemi waza can be substantially expanded if compassion for the opponent is recklessly abandoned. If the force generated by sutemi waza is applied against, say, a small joint, the technique can easily destroy that anatomy. For example: If a wrist is torqued in such a way that all the slack is out of the arm, and a forward roll is performed in the direction the wrist can not longer bend, that wrist is fubar. Obviously, such methods are rarely practiced in the dojo because the potential for injury is incredibly high, but knowledge of their existence may prove decisive in dire situations. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Invincible Warrior

Martial Artists are all aware of aikido randori, wherein a man in a black skirt deftly neutralizes the assaults of one or more attackers swinging sticks, knives, swords and judo chops. Invariably, the tori — the man being attacked — dispenses destruction in a series of revolving evasions, mean joint locks, and aerial tosses, while the uke — the attackers — slam onto the ground with a large slap, only rebound like lemmings and sally forth anew. The chaos continues until someone in charge calls "Yame!", or the uke give up. 

This type of practice is the boon and bane of aikido reputation. Some observers jaw-drop and ogle at the awesomeness of the interaction, while others heckle and naysay, labeling the exercise artificial. YouTube "aikido randori" and browse the comments for an entertaining collection of opinions from either faction. You'll invariably encounter trolls who say "I'd like to see them pull that $#IT on a UFC fighter," or meet martial arts nerds who claim Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, could do cartwheels and dodge bullets. 

Speaking of Ueshiba, this particular martial arts nerd would like to point his readers to a quote from Ueshiba's book, The Art of Peace. Ueshiba writes: "The Art of Peace is the principle of non-resistance. Because it is non-resistant, it is victorious from the beginning. Those with evil intentions or contentious thoughts are vanquished. The Art of Peace is invincible because it contends with nothing." 

When observing aikido randori, it's the man in the center that seems so impressive — maybe too impressive— maybe a little bit hokey. But when you think about an invincible warrior, isn't this the first impression you get? That the man in the middle is the badass, and that no can get him because he drops anyone who tries? Watch self-proclaimed badass Steven Segal do randori, and you'll see what I mean. I do not study aikido, but from my perspective, modern Aikido randori practice appears to emphasize the tori. It is no doubt good practice for timing, distancing, and producing technique on the fly. 

Now watch Ueshiba's randori. In both cases, Segal's and Ueshiba's,  the uke go flying. There is no doubt about it, these aikido uke can take some spectacular punishment. Here's the thing: They just get right back up. When I read the quote from Ueshiba, I don't get the impression he's referring to the badass in the middle. My impression from watching Ueshiba do randori is that he is trying to teach his students how to protect themselves from harm. In no way am I belittling Ueshiba's amazing abilities, and in no way am I down-talking aikido's effectiveness as a martial art. 

What I am saying is that I think that aikido randori was not meant to be an expression of combat whose objective is to glorify the tori; I think it is an exercise is for the uke to learn how to avoid danger. As soon as the aikido uke is placed in jeopardy, the ideal is to not contend at all — instead, the ideal is to escape, and it is often managed in very creative ways.

After all, is the invincible warrior one who can destroy a hundred men, or is it one you simply can't hurt?