Weapons Exercises – Kumi Tachi

What are kumi tachi and kumi jo and why do we practice them? On the surface, they are just kata, exercises in memorization we can test students on. They also teach weapons use, train students’ bodies in movement applicable to aikido, and teach distance and timing.

At a deeper level, there is an internal logic to each one that is more meaningful. Look at kumi tachi number 2, for example. You start standing tip to tip, sword points barely crossing, where both parties are as close as they can safely be. Neither provides an opening. Then one person takes the initiative. In this case, by taking his sword off line. This makes him more vulnerable, so he steps back at the same time. So, the attacker has an opening, a suki. But to exploit it the attacker has to move forwards. If he does this slowly, the other person can move back just as slowly, maintaining ma ai. So the attacker has to leap forwards too fast for his opponent to move backwards. However, the defender has time to respond, because of the distance, and he can respond in a number of ways.

He can return to the status quo ante by stepping back and cutting shomen to reconnect to the attacker’s sword. He can do this so strongly that he overcommits, attacking the attacker back, providing another suki which the attacker can exploit (KT 1). He can step in and to the side, avoiding the blow and stealing the energy to use it to strike at the attacker’s neck (KT 2). He can step back and deflect the attacker’s sword with an upward block (KT 3). He can counterstrike early enough that he takes the initiative back (KT 4). Or he can do something totally different (other KT, variations, etc).

To make this believable, the two partners need to each play their part, but if they are doing things correctly, this isn’t difficult. Each partner should make his partner’s next move feel inevitable. I want beginners to move a lot, to practice safely. More advanced students can work closer together. This increases the realism and benefit, but is more dangerous. These are, after all, lethal weapons we are using.

In the initial position, both partners should imagine a duel in medieval Japan, two samurai trying to kill each other, both intent, looking for the slightest loss of focus to exploit to kill the other guy. One guy provides an opening. It has to be realistic enough that the other guy sees it as a credible chance to kill the other. Too obvious, and the bait won’t be taken. When the bait is taken, the defender must move in just the right way at just the right time. Too soon, and the attacker can adjust. Too late, and the attacker wins.

The attacker must give a credible attack. Not difficult working with a beginner, of course, but the attack has to be better for a more advanced student. Of course, we don’t really want to kill each other, and want to keep a reserve in case our partner totally messes up, but there has to be a credible threat to make the kata work, rather than us just going through the motions (which is perfectly fine while learning the moves but is eventually limiting). Aikido is the “way of harmony and spirit”, after all. There has to be spirit (ki) to harmonise with. And we have to harmonise with it, or there is no aikido.

There are some things common in all the kumi tachi. In particular, as I have been illustrating, controlling the initiative (sente) through suki, position and distance. There are different “messages” in each of the different kumi tachi. These are the main ones I see: KT 1 – don’t over-commit. KT 2 – timing. KT 3 – don’t repeat anything three times in a row. KT 4 – again, timing, and in particular early timing (sen sen no sen) to crush the attacker. KT 5 – don’t let your attacker encroach.

So next time you practice kumi tachi, think on these points.

Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year, or whatever else you wish your friends.

Hi everybody:

Wow.  Major problem.  I almost finished, and my post disappeared.  It would have been amazing ;-), but you’ll have to make do with what I remember.  It said it was saving, but if it did I can’t find it.  So here goes.

First of all, Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year.

It has been an eventful year.  We started off with a big dojo and going deeper and deeper into the red.  We are ending up with a smaller dojo but almost breaking even.  If we had a couple more full memberships, we’d be actually breaking even.  So tell your friends.  Drag them along.  Three free lessons!  If they don’t try it, they won’t know if they like it.

Thanks to everybody that helped with the new dojo and transporting the excess mats to the barn.  Now that we have all the legalities sorted out, I can actually surplus the mats and free up the barn. For a while, I thought I was going to have to build a new dojo in the barn.

With the smaller space, we could not fit in a seminar, so we rented the Sanddrift Aikikai space.  We had a good spring seminar.  In the fall, we didn’t have a full seminar, but had a cookout/cross training at the farm.  That was fun too, and it is important not to only practice in one environment.

So another year has come to an end.  In the new year, we should think about the last year, how things went, and what we want to work on in the next.  The syllabus was developed to ensure that each student was taught all aspects of aikido.  The early kyu ranks are pretty easy tests.  The middle kyu ranks have a lot of techniques.  The high kyu ranks are about putting it all together.  So by shodan a student should pretty much know all the techniques from all the attacks in aikido.

After shodan, students need to work on applying techniques, how to make them work in any situation, on any attacker.  After that, they need to work on transcending the techniques.  Techniques are necessary for teaching and learning.  They make sense out of chaos.  But what was Musashi’s book 5?  The Book of the Void.

While the syllabus covers pretty much everything, each of us has things we need to work on, things that are particularly challenging.  Some of us are strong, but because of injury or old age, we lose strength, and need to work on technique for when we lose strength, or when it isn’t enough.  Some of us don’t extend enough.  Some of us need to pay more attention to foot position.  Some of us need to work on staying centered, physically, mentally, and emotionally.  All of us have things we can improve that are outside of the syllabus.

But most of all, we need to practice.  I tell students that their first priority should be family, then work, than aikido.  Because if your family is not happy they will put all sorts of obstacles in the way of your practice.  If you don’t have a job, you probably can’t come to class – you won’t have transportation to get there.  We do get students that just pick it up naturally, and do well, then they disappear.  Sometimes they repeat this, but usually when they find that the people who were not doing so well but kept practicing are now better than them, and they don’t like that.  So do come to class, and do so regularly.

Happy Keiko.

Alan

Connecting

Social media are all about connecting, to friends, relatives, and strangers.  Aikido is also about connection, and that is what we worked on last night.  When you turn in tao no henko (e.g. going back to back when attacked gyaku hanmi katate tori), do you want to break loose (e.g. to strike uke), or do you want to stay connected (e.g. to throw uke).

These are options.  Depending on the situation, you might want to do either.  To break loose, you want to lever your arm out of the gap between uke’s fingers and thumb.  To do this, you pronate your arm (rotate it to palm down) and lift up.  To stay connected you want to press your arm into uke’s grip, you supinate your arm (rotate it palm up) and press down.

These movements will work on uke’s grip.  However, there is more to it.  You don’t want to just connect to uke’s hand.  You want to connect to their center.  You want your center to connect to their’s, so that when you move your center, uke feels the effect immediately.  So how do you take up the slack in that connection?  Sometimes, uke does it for you.  If uke is determined to keep hold of your arm, their muscle tension will make the connection for you.  But sometimes uke will not hold tightly, and will keep their center rather than keep their grip.  This is a perfectly sensible martial response.  You just prevent nage from doing anything useful with that arm, and don’t commit.  It isn’t helpful to beginning aikido students, but that does not make it a stupid response (except when the goal is to teach a beginner something).

So what will make uke hold on, to grip your arm and accept having their posture compromised rather than letting go?  A threat.  Particularly a subtle threat.  So if you move your arm towards their groin,  they will most likely hold on.  The initial tendency for nage is to do this too overtly.  Then the response is often too uncontrolled to be useful.  But a small move in the right direction will often result in uke holding on nicely.

A common failure with katate tori kokyu ho is that nage’s arm gets sweaty and uke has difficulty holding on.  This shows that nage is applying too much force in the wrong direction.  If instead of sliding nage’s arm out of uke’s grip, try working more by pressing your arm into uke’s grip.  Set up uke’s arm so that it is extended over their front triangle point and press down, and uke will lose balance.

Connection is easier to work on and study with a grip, but it is just as important with a strike.  With mune tsuki, for example, you want to turn in a similar fashion to katate tori, blending with the strike.  You want to extend the arm just like with katate tori, and you want to press at about 90 degrees to the extended arm.  Then you can throw uke down with kokyu ho just like with katate tori.

The timing is a bit more critical, because the natural thing to do if the first punch misses (or even if it hits) is to throw the second one.  For a punch to be effective, it must stay on target for a moment.  Yanking it back before it has had time to transfer its energy into the target is not effective.  But it only takes a moment for this to happen – maybe quarter of a second.  At that time, for an effective punch (and who cares about getting hit by an ineffective one) uke’s arm is rigid and extended.  If nage has contact at that time, center to center, they can disrupt uke’s posture just as effectively as with a grab.

Often people grab the gi to make that connection.  I am sometimes guilty myself.  However, this generally messes up other parts of the technique.  Instead, just move your own center  in the right direction (i.e. use your legs, the arms merely being connectors).  For some reason, this moved uke more effectively.

You generally do not want to stop uke from extending their punch.  In fact, if you can make them extend it too far, that’s even better.  If you touch their arm and rotate your own, this will tend to do what you want.  It is a subtle movement, and it maybe extends their arm only an inch or so, but done just as the punch is focused for impact it also moves uke’s body.  From being centered and grounded, their weight is moved just a bit, their weight goes onto the balls of the feet or even the toes, and they are easy to move.

Timing is even more critical with a knife attack.  There is less need to time to allow the energy to transfer.  You still need to connect to uke’s center, but there is less likely to be much resistance as knife attacks are more likely to be fluid rather than strong.

These things all need to be studied.  They need to be practiced.  We tend to put too much emphasis on throwing uke down, on pinning uke.  In the street, success is very important.  In the dojo, we are practicing, trying to learn.  We also want our dojo partners to learn.  It is important to focus on our immediate goals if we are to succeed.  As we learn, it will translate into more probability of success if we are unfortunate enough to need to use our art in the street.

Party!

Well we had a pretty good party/cross training.  Lots of folks tried yoga, karate, aikido and kali.  The kali was a bit different from what I’m familiar with, but that is all good.  When setting up I looked at some aikido videos I’d forgotten I had and which I’d never looked at, and we did some of the exercises from Ikeda’s videos.  Some of his stuff is pretty interesting, and if you think a bit it does transfer to strikes.  The sun did get a bit hot in the front pasture where I had planned to work out, but we moved under the trees where it was a bit better.  I had planned to have us beat up on a bunch of cardboard boxes, but we didn’t get to them.

I didn’t count how many folks came, but we did have quite a few.  Not quite as many as had said were coming, but still a good number.

It is always hard to participate as well as orchestrate an event, but I think everybody had a good time, and thanks to George for doing all the cooking.  I way overestimated the numbers of hot dogs we would need, but they will freeze for the next time.

I think in view of the typical attendance I am going to move the advanced class from Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11 am.  Nobody is prohibited from attending this class, but the focus will be on the highest ranked student, instead of the lowest.  We have some higher ranked folks that I need to stretch a bit.  In a lot of ways, advanced is basic.  Often we need to focus more on the basics, but with a different intent.  But advanced students need to learn to read the attackers and not think too much.

When done properly, aikido does not require a lot of effort.  When you have to work hard, you are doing it wrong.  Sure, we all mess up now and again and use strength to make up for our deficiencies, but in the dojo you should practice using as little strength as possible.  It is a good practice in the dojo to try to use only a quarter of our strength.  Then if you have to defend yourself IRL you have a good margin for error.

When getting ready for the party I looked at some aikido videos I have.  One was by a high ranked individual who is the head of his style.  However, his angles were wrong.  He was doing kote gaeshi in a way that would get him hit in the head.  Angles are really really important.  I wonder if he really would do kote gaeshi that way in the street.  A lot of people teach one thing and do something different when pushed.  Teaching is hard.  You need to have good technique, but you also need to be able to teach it.  That involves seeing what you actually do, being able to express what you do, and being able to communicate that to the student.  In addition, you have to be able to motivate the student to expand his or her limits.  A lot of good technicians can not teach.  A lot of good teachers are terrible technicians.  It is important to find a good technician who is a good teacher to get started right.  Once you are on the right path, all you need is a good technician to learn from, though it does help if you can get more than that.

Open house

Some of the other businesses in the complex were having an open house, so I went down and opened up the dojo too.  Izaya and Jenna came as well, and Sid hung out a bit.  I gave the mayor a tour of the facility.  We handed out some flyers and business cards, and Izaya impressed some folks by doing ukemi on the concrete.  Impressed me too – haven’t done that in decades.  We practiced 13 and 31 point jo kata in the parking lot, and Izaya got pretty good at the 13 point one.  He and Jenna danced a bit, getting more attention for the dojo.  Overall, we got a lot of attention.  Hopefully it will result in a new student or two.

Testing

Jenna and Izaya both passed their tests (gokyu and yonkyu) on Tuesday, and both did really well.  So congratulations to both of them.

Testing is important as it is demonstrating that you can do aikido under pressure, which as it is a self defense art is important.

Non-physical aikido

My first instructor, the late Hamish Macfarlane, told me that aikido is 90% mental.  This does not mean that the physical aspects should be neglected, but that they are not all there is.

Centering is particularly important in aikido.  Centering is physical (turning about your center, extending from your center), mental (relating all actions to your center), and emotional/spiritual.  The last item is what I want to address.

Self defense is a scary and emotionally difficult situation.  When somebody physically pushes, you turn.  When threatened, you do the same thing: you don’t allow yourself to be moved emotionally, but rather you blend and turn.

When pushed physically, you retain a strong center, but do not use it to push back.  You can do this, of course, and it will work if you are the bigger stronger, person.  But that is not aikido.  When you turn, you blend with the incoming energy, you add your energy to the incoming energy, and steer it to where you want it to go, typically around your center, then either let it go, or direct it into your technique.

When pushed emotionally, spiritually, it is equally important to be resolute and immovable, while not using this to resist here either.  Rather, blend and turn.  Even if you are logically correct, saying “you are wrong” is going to cause conflict.  If, instead, you say, something like, “that is an interesting position”, you are making contact, forging a connection, just like when you avoid a physical attack and make physical contact with the attacker’s center.  Then if you say, “can you tell me why you think that”, you are adding your energy to the incoming energy.  Then, you can ask questions to lead the energy of the discussion, perhaps to where you want it to go.

Once you have control of the situation, physically or emotionally, what you do with it is also related to aikido.  You can in either case cause a lot of damage, but the way of aiki is to minimize the damage to an attacker.  Physically, we use the energy to throw uke into an ukemi that is both survivable and within their capabilities.  We can do the same in an emotional conflict.

In either physical or emotional aikido, practice is, of course important.  Knowing how to do kote gaeshi does not mean you can actually do it.  There are subtle movements of the body, arms, legs, etc that have a huge effect on the effectiveness of the technique.  The same applies to non-physical aikido also.

We do typically practice the physical sort of aikido quite a bit, a lot for some of us.  We probably practice the other aspects a lot less.  I was never taught these other aspects, so I probably don’t address them enough either.  I was expected to learn them through osmosis.  Certainly the various aspects of aikido are not separate.  Studying the non-physical aspects will also enhance the physical ones.

Finally, just as different practitioners have different styles of physical aikido, there are different styles of non-physical aikido also.

 

On Basics

Everybody likes to do the fancy stuff, big impressive throws.  They are fun to do, but it is really the basics that are important.  When folks start aikido, it is about memorizing where to put your hands and feet.  By the time you get shodan, you should know all the common techniques from all the common attacks.  As you move on, you get away from names and categories, and just do aikido.  Sometimes I have to think about what to call a technique I just did.

From what I remember, O Sensei wasn’t big on names.  He’d just demonstrate something, and tell the class to practice that.  His son, Kisshomaru, was apparently the one who systematized things.  That does make it easier to teach and to learn.  But it is cutting aikido up into convenient chunks.  At some point, you need to go beyond that and work on the underlying stuff.  When you work on a named technique, you are practicing aikido.  When you work more directly with an attack without names getting in the way, you may be doing aikido.

So as you progress beyond shodan, it is increasingly important to look at angles, distance, and timing.  Angles are what allow a physically smaller person to overpower a larger person.  Distance determines what one person can do to another, and as two people are often different in size it is not necessarily symmetrical.  Timing determines the dynamics of the interaction.  Often quite small changes are all that are necessary.

Angles relate to both uke and nage.  Uke needs certain angles to deliver an effective attack, and nage’s angles in relation to that line also effect how dangerous an attack is.  Nage needs certain angles relative to the line of attack in order to deal with that attack, and certain angles relative to uke in order to be able to move uke.  Useful angles start with the feet, where they are pointed, and so on.  Angles of the body (hips and shoulders) and arms are also important, and are based on the feet.

The obvious aspect of distance (ma ai) is whether uke can hit you.  As the distance decreases, there comes a point where uke goes from being unable to hit you to where he can hit you.  If he is intent on doing damage, crossing that threshold will trigger the attack. The distance will of course be different for different weapons, whether natural weapons (foot vs fist) or others (e.g knife vs jo).  There is even a difference in distance between an open hand (shuto) vs a fist.

Both parties can affect this distance.  One of the most important aspects of timing is controlling that distance.  If the distance is changing at a regular rate, the timing of the strike is very predictable.  Nage can manipulate the timing by his own movements.  And, of course, so can uke.

So, back to basics.  Exploring these issues works best with techniques you are very familiar and comfortable with.  If you are working on improving a technique, you are probably not able to also work on angles, distance and timing.  So we all need to improve our techniques, but as we get up in rank we also need to work to transcend them.

What is aikido?

Over the last few years I have been thinking about this again.  More and more, I have been coming to the view that aikido is a way to limit damage.  There are so many ways you can hurt an attacker, and aikido opens up many of these ways.  So ikkyo is an opening for breaking an attacker’s ribs with a reverse punch.  Kote gaeshi is an opening for breaking his ribs with a side kick or, a little later, with a round kick.  But if you see these options and can realize them, but take the less damaging one where possible, that is aikido.  Kind of like you can’t really be a pacifist unless you can kill.

This approach also has the useful aspect that you can practice aikido at close to full force.  A lot of arts you have to practice as kata where you punch and kick the air, pull your punches, or wear protective equipment.  Aikido, you can cut loose, and with enough training uke survives just fine.

I used to think of aikido as the “light side of the force”, and karate as the “dark side”.  Now this isn’t a very oriental way of looking at things.  A more oriental way might be to see the two sides as two parts of the whole.  The two are complementary.  I kind of saw this logically, but I am seeing it more these days in how I practice.  If you practice with the intent of hurting people, but not doing so, aikido works better, and there is less conflict, not more.  Now this is almost American: carry a big stick and walk softly.

Was this at all close to how O Sensei saw aikido?  Most Western aikidoka relate to O Sensei as the little old man with a grin shown in the pictures on most dojo.  However, there was a darker side to him.  He did teach the Japanese military at the Nagano spy school.  One of his most influential teachers was Sokaku Takeda.  I can quite see O Sensei as having this view of aikido.  A lot of our teachers learned aikido in post WW2 Japan, when Macarthur acted a lot like a shogun and martial arts training had to be under the radar.  In that climate, they probably were not taught the more martial aspects of aikido.

When O Sensei opened the original Hombu in Tokyo, it was common practice to visit a new dojo and check out the teacher.  If he couldn’t beat all comers, he wouldn’t last long.  So O Sensei obviously was able to kick ass.  So maybe my view isn’t so far from the one O Sensei had.