24 June, 2011

Injury and Mindfulness

As martial artists, we have heard the term mindfulness applied in many ways. Perhaps this is most important in the martial arts than any other physical activity, as our intent is to injure others, but we wish to practice the intent without fully completing the act of injury others (namely our training partners, those we are working with, etc.).

I recently experienced a total lack of mindfulness on my part. I have been reflecting on this the last few weeks. It has been a learning exercise on my part (after I finished kicking myself). I have come to realize that it was my lack of mindfulness which was the root cause of the incident.

When I was a junior and I read about how the senior student takes responsibility for actions of a junior, I found myself confused. How is that fair? How can a senior prevent the injury of the junior? Surely they must have control, but what about if the junior all but purposely takes the attack - how can the senior be expected to avoid such situations?

Fast forward many years to earlier this month. As I have mentioned in the past, I perform one assist a week at my dojo, under the supervision of my Sensei. There is another yudansha to help as well, but I am the senior amongst the two of us.

There is a student who is preparing for the shodan grading. This student is a strong candidate who practices diligently. He also recently when for a grading for Iaido, so he has a good mindset.

It was the end of my assist, with the black belt class beginning. We started with light sparring to warm up the black belts and cool down the remaining kyu belts. What this means is that a black belt would be paired with a kyu belt to spar. While each black belt was in charge of their own "fight", I was in charge over all. This was the first problem that I had - I paid less attention to my own match than that of others - a big mistakes in mindfulness of my immediate surroundings. One cannot sacrifice the close view for the far, or vice versa. See Musashi's "Go Rin No Sho" for a great quote on this.

I was sparring with the shodan candidate. He was giving some strong mae geri (front kick), which I also let distract me. Another fault! I cannot allow myself to be overwhelmed by simple annoyances or minor pains - I have been training over a decade, what is a little discomfort!? Again, the fraying around of the edges of my island of mindfulness can be seen.

Towards the end of sparring, I noticed that my partner was leaving his face open. I thought that I would teach him not to - please note that I do not mean this as in "teaching him a lesson" as a bully! My intent was to show that he was in range for a jab and didn't have the necessary protection. Another mistake! Why should I think that I can teach in the middle of a sparring session with a younger and more inexperienced fighter?!

What ended up happening, though, wasn't that my fist was in front of his face. I ended up jabbing to his face and hit him square in the nose. I forgot that he wasn't a black belt, he didn't have the reflexes of someone training for several years but only a few. I treated him as someone far above an ikkyu rank, and that was another loss in my mindfulness.

The result was him bleeding quite significantly. We immediately set about taking him out of the dojo, cleaning up the blood, giving him paper towel to help clot the blood - all of this happened at once. My Sensei looked after the student as other seniors cleaned up while I got dressed. I drove him to the hospital immediately and went into emergency.

The end result - no significant trauma, but I did break his nose. The only brass lining (not even silver) was that it was a minor fracture and did not dislocate the nose - only some swelling had occurred which made it appear worse than it was. All of this culminated from my lack of mindfulness of what I was doing and when.

I find myself always encouraging students to increase their own mindfulness, and here I am violating that same concept repeatedly to the detriment of another - if I hurt myself in such idiocy, that would be acceptable and a good lesson. For it to injure another, one preparing for a major grading no less, it simply unacceptable.

Another lesson from all of this was that I cannot expect others to be able to move and react as I would or as I do. Even those with more experience (another black belt) would not necessarily have been able to dodge that or reduce the injury - it is a sort of hubris, I think, to imagine that others should be able to perfectly perform the necessary defensive and evasive procedures under duress that I am not sure even I could do.

So I can see how and why the senior must be in control. This was a hard lesson for me as I almost always am incredibly careful with the techniques that I use against others. I would say I am one of the most careful seniors, taking few risks against my juniors. I would rather break my own nose than even knock the wind from my partner. But that day I failed and I failed spectacularly. My lack of control and mindfulness cost another person injury.

I should not that the student has since been to class regularly and is doing well. Despite a bit of post injury swelling, he is back to his old self, but I worry if I have introduced unneeded stress into his mind. That will come out in the training, and I hope will not leave undue concerns behind.

I found this a sobering and important lesson that I need to be learn intimately with my body, conscious and unconscious mind.

04 June, 2011

Arakaki Seisho and his Kata

My Sensei teaches many different arts and many different kata - he is a career Sensei and has a deep interest in a wide variety of arts.  While we are a Goju Ryu school, our history is such that we have influences from other schools.  And in the interest of preserving the kata and their varied applications, we preform not only their kata, but the many related kata.

For example, we have different versions for all of the core Goju kata - I had to have three different Seisan's for my Sandan (there were more, but I am not a hardcore, teacher-type student).  We also have several versions of non-Goju kata - Wanshu, Wanshu Dai and Empi (all in the same lineage).  As a person with some interest in the history of the arts I practice, it is fascinating to see the evolution and changes of kata between branches, teacheres, etc.  Don't get me started on Patsai - we have at least four, off the top of my head, and keeping them straight is an exercise in and of itself.

Anyways, back to my topic.  We had recently begun doing (re-doing for some of us) kata from Arakaki (Aragaki) Seisho - namely Unsu and Sochin.  I had Sochin for my Sandan, but hadn't practiced it in years.  In doing it again at this point I have started to see some different benefits.  What I had thought (at the time of my grading) was that this was another kata for depth but not breadth - a foolish assumption!  Now, especially after reading "Hidden in Plain Sight" by Ellis Amdur, I am starting to think more about this teacher in our lineage, as well as the intent behind his kata.

For those who don't know, or who may do the kata differently, Sochin has five techniques, in the beginning, three to the front and two to the back, which are the same.  But the method is interesting, and different from other breathing done in Goju (and in Shuri-inspired schools, I would imagine).  We inhale, compress the breath and energy twice in a manner that sounds like two terse exhalations, then let the effort explode into a basic strike.  This manner of breathing reminded me of the description in the above named book of Chinese exercises learned by some Bushi several hundred years ago that were incorporated into the highest levels of their ryuha.  Gathering the breath and energy, compressing it and concentrating it - while the application is different in karate, there is perhaps something behind this.  After all, Goju itself is known for its forceful breathing and dynamic tension.

I looked around for more information on Arakaki Seisho, and most of it is either based on the same source or agrees that he was a student of Louhan Quan (monk fist or arhat boxing).  His contributions to karate are mainly carried on in Naha-derived styles such as Goju, but Seisan is a well known kata which, while it has several major variations, is found in almost every style of karate.  Arakaki was Sensei to many of the most prominent teachers of various karate styles and most lineages can trace back to him in some way, at least indirectly.  If his style was based on Shaolin or other monk/temple exercises, it is quite possible that qi gong or some similar exercises were incorporated into that lineage.  It should also be noted that this may not exist in an unaltered form today, as I believe there are no Sensei on Okinawa teaching monk fist - all of Arakaki's students went on to create their own systems.

I should note that many karateka trained and developed methods across their styles.  Yamaguchi Gogen and Nagamine Shoshin would be a good example or more modern collaborative efforts in their creation of Gekisai/Fukyu gata.  So it is not necessary that everyone comes back to a single, easy to trace root.  I just find it interesting and intriguing that I think most can.

Anyways, I have been learning a new kata, called Annan.  It seemed to me to be a mighty coincidence that this kata has many monk-like postures (recognized as either wisdom or compassion mudras, I forget which) just after working on Arakaki kata. 

Edit: I recently found out the information I had googled was not correct, so I have removed it at the request of the original website author.  My apologies for any inconvenience - any spread of misinformation was solely my fault - and my apologies to the original author.

So all of this has me thinking more about the holistic nature of karate, the roots of the art, the founding styles and the teachers, the intent behind the techniques.  What I mean by intent is that one often sees in the Chinese arts that the movements are not just for combat, but also a means to increase vitality, stretch the body and strengthen the various systems (nervous, skeletal, muscular, those pertaining to the fascia and tendons (if there is a name for that, and you know it, pass it on!)).  If monk style is a founding aspect to karate, then it bares investigating and relating the modern approaches of those techniques to ours and seeing what has changed and what was missed and what was improved.  If not, this is at least an amusing mental diversion and a chance to study kata and methodologies in depth.

01 June, 2011

Iaido Seminar and Lessons Learned

I have been meaning to post this for over a week now.  Life never pauses I suppose.  Now there is a thought - if Life ever pauses, you don't need to worry, its all done.

Anyways, about the Iaido seminar.  First off, I have never sweat so much in a hakama.  And I have never focused so much on a single form - everything was wrong.  It is quite sobering to learn a second totally different martial art.  It keeps my on my toes, it gives my brain a different angle to attack a problem.  But now instead of testing out kicks when no one is looking (at the office, at home, etc) I find myself holding anything from a marker to a water bottle over my head in jodan gamae, practicing how to use my pinky fingers in order then stopping the "sword" with a pulse of my thumb at the bottom of the stroke.  It so simple when explained and shown, and takes so much concentration and effort to achieve.

Don't get me started on stances.  Having a traditional karate background, my stances were far too long and wide for the liking of the Sensei's at the seminar.

But I digress (as I often do, I suspect its a habit when writing about one's passions).

The morning started with a large group exercise going through all of the 12 forms of Zen Ken Nippon Renmei Seitei gata.  The afternoon, where I think I lost a few pounds of water, consisted of dividing into three rough groups (I was in the lowest, of course).

I learned an important lesson about Japanese culture which I really should have known.  If you don't say anything, sometimes that is best.  The Sensei leading us asked if anyone didn't know all the seitei gata.  I was the only one who raised my hand.  After the acting translator informed him (after I explained that I knew most of the forms, but not the last few very well), I was given over to another Sensei.  I made a joke about this later with everyone, saying that I was put into remedial sword work when they saw how bad I was, but everyone was quite surprised that I got such one-on-one instruction.  Looking back on it, I was quite pleased.  I made sure to personally thank the Sensei who did the one-on-one with me that afternoon, as I felt that I learned so much about Iaido as a whole (stances, arm, posture, movement, timing, the list goes on).

The final session consisted of breaking into groups again and working on specific kata and techniques.  It was quite beneficial to get the feel of the entire form (especially something like sogiri - five cuts that I find quite difficult as a beginner) as well as get specific hints and tips on the bulk of the Seitei gata.

It wasn't until the end of the day that I realized why I was sweating to much.  It was one of the hottest days we had in Canada, and the gymnasium in which we were practicing was essentially a giant tin-roofed shed - no wonder the heat was on!

Lessons learned: Stances!  It was too easy, as I got tired, to get into zenkutsu dachi or shiko instead of the smaller (and more efficient in my mind) kendo/iaido stances.  Karate stances do not mix well with sword techniques.

I also found that I had many questions for my Sensei after the fact: how to perform the noto (I saw some people using a more horizontal beginning for their noto and then turning the saya and iaito vertical as the noto finished), how to tie the sageo (this might have related to the koryu in which they were studying, but ours is looped around the saya and tied near the tsuba, where as the Senseis and others just had it across the hara on the opposite hip) - the details are many and varied and probably more than I should worry about at this point in time.  But the comparisons are interesting.

I am glad to have found in Iaido something so different and personally challenging - there is always something new to fix and adjust.  I am not saying it doesn't happen in karate, but when trying to learn something new, all of the "subtle" adjustments that you can do on the fly normally just seem that much more important and that much more difficult.

One more thing I realized was that in iaido (and kendo) and karate is that you never want to be flat footed.  I suspect this is true of every martial art.  You want to push your intent forward and don't give ground unless you want them to have it.