Wednesday, 29 December 2010

My Martial Artsy Christmas, the year ahead and a new blog.....

One of the great advantages of being a martial artist is that you never run out of ideas for what people can buy you for Christmas or birthdays. There are always books, weapons or other pieces of equipment that you need. This Christmas was no exception…

My mum wanted to know what to get me so I suggested an umbrella stand. That’s a bit old fashioned she said, why do you want one of those? Oh, I don’t want it to put umbrellas in, I said, I want it to store my weapons in!

We have a collection of bokkens, a jo, a bo and several sets of nunchucks which have been lying on the floor of our gym, getting in the way and at risk of being damaged. An umbrella stand or something similar seemed the perfect storage device to me. Well, Mum couldn’t get an umbrella stand but found a great two foot tall vase made from moulded plastic and painted gold. It has that ‘Ali Baba’ look about it. As you can see from the photo above it fits its purpose beautifully and is keeping all our weapons neat, tidy and safe.

We also received a multi-weapon carrying bag so that we can now transport our weapons legally to and from the dojo! One of my sons’ bought me David Lowry’s latest book: ‘The Essence of Budo’, and my husband bought me a Kindle onto which I have already downloaded a couple of martial arts books from Amazon. So all in all it has been a very good martial artsy Christmas for me – I’m very lucky!

However, with Christmas gone it is now time to look forward to the year ahead and make some plans. One of the big events for us in 2011 will be grading for our black belts. My husband, eldest son and I will hopefully be grading together in May/June. I have decided that 5-6 months of solid, hard training will be needed to get up to the required standard and so I have started to think about how to structure this training over the coming months.

With this aim in mind I have decided to publically plan and document my training schedule as well as analyse my progress as I countdown towards my shodan. However, I will do this in a new blog called ‘Countdown to Shodan’ rather than in this blog. This is because the theme of this blog has never been to document the details of my training schedule and I don’t wish to change the theme of this blog. ‘My Journey to Black Belt’ will continue in its present form. I will link the two blogs together and hopefully update both of them on a weekly basis.

I’ll let you know when the new blog is up and running. Meanwhile I wish everyone a happy new year…..

Here's the link to my new blog: 'Countdown to Shodan' . You will also find it in my blog list.

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Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Black Belt Paradox

A couple of weeks ago I received a comment to one of my posts in which the commentator SCB said: "I hear "time in grade" references; I hear "syllabus" and other such things that cause me concern as to what black belt means so would like to see you post on that subject, "What black belt means to me?"".

I think that the subtext behind this comment is what do I think about the concept of a syllabus focused kyu grading system with the acquisition of coloured belts and the coveted black belt?

When I started this blog nearly two years ago I was a purple belt (4th kyu). At that point in my training the idea of ‘journeying to black belt’ seemed like a reasonable target to pursue in a martial art. Isn’t that what every martial artist wants? I then became aware through listening to other more experienced martial artists and through my own personal development that ‘it isn’t about getting a black belt – it’s about the training’.

I have also become aware that many people don't agree with the coloured belt ranking system and prefer a system that observes the more traditional training method whereby students wear a white belt until their sensei deems them proficient enough in the mental and physical aspects of their art to be awarded the black belt. Do I agree with these view points? Err..yes and!

Yes I agree that it’s not just about getting the black belt. I don’t want to follow some watered down syllabus that fast tracks me to shodan. I want to immerse myself more fully in the physical, mental and cultural aspects of martial arts and I need time to do that properly. BUT… I like my brown belt and I liked all the coloured belts I had before – they are markers of my progress, they help me put my new found skills and knowledge into context, they motivate me. They are like mini rewards for the effort I have made. And yes, I want that black belt.

Lets look at the origins of the kyu/dan grading system and what its inventor, Professor Jigoro Kano the 'Father of judo', was trying to achieve with his system. The kyu/dan grading system was introduced into judo in 1883. Initially it was just a white belt for ungraded students and a black belt for graded students.

Prior to this a student would train under a master for many years learning only the few techniques and kata that he wanted to teach. After several years a few trusted students may be taught some more dangerous 'hidden techniques'. Many students would train for years with a master, learning only a limited range of techniques and if they left they would have nothing to show for all their efforts. Occasionally the master may issue them with a scroll which listed the techniques they had learnt. It was very difficult for most students to learn a complete system of fighting - only the trusted and dedicated few would achieve this honour. Martial arts had a 'closed shop' mentality.

All this changed with Kano's introduction of the belt ranking system. He extended the white/black belt approach to include a range of coloured belts and introduced the concept of a systematised syllabus that gradually built up from elementary moves to increasingly more difficult concepts as the students skill and knowledge developed. Each stage of the process was marked with awarding the student the next coloured belt. Once all the techniques of the entire syllabus had been learnt the student was awarded the black belt to signify they now knew all the basics of their art.

The advantage of the belt ranking system was that all students now had the opportunity to learn an entire fighting method in a logical and systematised way. Judo had now become an 'open shop' allowing many more students to train. Gichin Funakoshi soon saw the potential of the belt ranking system for karate as he introduced karate to Japan. Adopting the belt system made karate more acceptable to the Japanese government and allowed Funakoshi to propagate it within the Japanese university network. From there it spread to the world.

If you are a critic of the coloured belt ranking system remember that without it Eastern martial arts may never have spread around the world and may still be the preserve of small secretive dojos training only handfuls of students. Instead hundreds of thousands of people around the world are able to participate and enjoy the benefits of learning Eastern martial arts.

However, I accept that the belt ranking system has its drawbacks. It has been abused by many clubs or organisations who have developed a very narrow syllabus that does not teach a complete fighting method. This goes against Kano's original aim of enabling all students to access a complete fighting system. A martial arts system is only going to be as good as its syllabus so if the syllabus is incomplete then so will the resulting martial art be. This does not mean that the principle of the belt grading system is flawed, only the martial arts system that is using it incorrectly.

The other problem of the belt ranking system is that it can focus the student's attention to much on the next grading rather than on the process of training. Again, if this is happening it is the fault of the instructor rather than the belt ranking system. In our club we are not syllabus focused all the time. Many students do not even access their syllabus from the website trusting that through their training they will be taught the things they need to know.

Karate often avoids the pitfalls of being over focused on syllabus by engaging in whole class teaching. In our club, the only time we split into grade groups is to practice kata but even then we often do kata practice as a class - revising more junior kata and trying to copy more senior kata from more senior students. Learning is circular in karate and this is reflected in our syllabus. We are tested on some of the same material every grade - obviously we are expected to perform it at a more proficient level as we progress.

I think the belt ranking system is a positive introduction to martial arts, allowing it to be accessible to a much wider number of students. Any faults that one can level at it are generally faults of its application rather than its principle. It is up to the student to find a club that applies the principle well so that they learn a complete and comprehensive martial art system. The belt ranking system does not mean that the belt is more important than the training - the training will always be the most important thing but students in the junior ranks need external motivators, need structure and order and this is provided by the ranking system. As you become more experienced then motivation internalises more and you become less dependent on rank. This takes experience and wisdom to understand.

When I look at who it is that tells me it’s not about the black belt or that we don’t need coloured belts, I realise that they are all (no dis-respect is meant here) – black belts! It seems to me one needs to acquire the wisdom and experience of a black belt to realise that getting the black belt is not important and only really represents the beginning. I can ‘know’ this but it remains precisely that – knowledge, not wisdom. I have to go through the process myself of converting this knowledge into wisdom through practice, learning and experience and to help me do this I need my belts, all of them! I call this the Black Belt Paradox – you need to acquire a black belt in order to truly understand that ‘it’s not about the black belt’.
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Monday, 13 December 2010

Iai-jutsu grading result...

What ever your views on the kyu grading system in martial arts (my views on this will be the subject of my next post), I am pleased to announce that my husband and I both passed our iai-jutsu grading on Sunday!
I was a little more nervous than usual about this grading. The requirements were much more exacting than for our other level one weapons and a higher standard of precision and etiquette were required. It took me a long time to master even the most basic elements of using a sword such as just smoothly pulling it out of the saya (scabbard) and returning it again (without looking). I nearly always had the saya upside down so that the sword wouldn't fit in! Eventually I got the hang of it and now it's hard to understand why I couldn't do it in the first place - but that's the nature of learning.
There were a lot of 'differents' associated with this grading compared to previous kobudo gradings: different venue, different grading officer, even different uniform (we had to wear our hakamas). There was also a lot of waiting about before the grading, about 2 hours, so it was hard to stay warm and it was too cramped to practice properly as you need a lot of space when you are wielding a sword and we had to wait in the hallway of a small infant school. 
Finally it was our turn to grade. We started with the reishiki ceremony which we did simultaneously. I'd been fretting about some of the details of this rather elaborate show of etiquette - do we bow before we swap the sword to the right hand or after? Is it left hand or right hand down first when doing the full seiza bow? Do we start walking with the right foot first or the left foot? All these details matter. However, on the day we both managed to perform it flawlessly so the grading got off to a good start.
After that we were graded separately (apart from partnering each other when required). The grading officer looked at us and said, 'How about ladies first?' chance for some sneaky revision whilst watching my husband grade first then. Amazingly I remembered everything, didn't make any mistakes and didn't stand on or trip over my hakama!
Then I knelt on the edge of the mat whilst my husband was graded, just getting up to partner him for his disarming techniques and wrist throws. His performance too was error free and looked really neat and precise. I felt very proud of him.
Then it was time to line up and get the results. "Pass with honours". Both of us. Wow!
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Thursday, 9 December 2010

Grading time again!

This is one problem of studying two different martial arts in different clubs - you subject yourself to twice as many gradings! In karate, as I have advanced along the kyu grades the gradings have become further and further apart: 3 monthly up to purple belt (4th kyu), then 6 monthly up to 1st kyu and now it's a minimum of 9 months before I can grade for black belt. This assumes that you train at least twice a week. For people only training once a week you can pretty well double the figures. Even after the minimum 9 month period you can only grade for black belt if you are invited to do so by the organisation and that will depend on how well you do at a pre-grading session.

In kobudo, however, my gradings remain at 3 month intervals and my next one is on Sunday. This time I am grading with the bokken. Our syllabus for bokken is based on Iai-jutsu and has 3 levels, my husband and I are taking level 1.

The level 1 bokken syllabus is much more demanding than the level 1 syllabus of other weapons and cannot be learnt to a high enough standard in just 3 months. We have been training with the bokken for at least a year now alongside the three weapons we have already graded in. The last three months have been dedicated to just training with the bokken.

The syllabus focuses on drawing the bokken in different ways, the five basic cuts, the basic stances, four disarming techniques in seiza, wrist locks with the handle of the bokken, 5 muto dori techniques (disarming techniques) using jujitsu moves, an elaborate Reishiki (beginning) ceremony and demonstration of decorative cord (sageo) tying to the handle of the bokken.

Learning to use a bokken effectively definitely requires you to learn how to relax into a technique until the last second when you apply tension. Without this ability to relax you look like you're hacking someone to death rather than smoothly cutting them! It is a skill that transfers well to karate where the ability to alternate between soft and hard is also necessary to generate speed and power. This is no coincidence - many ideas and training practices used in karate come from several styles of sword. I previously wrote about this in Karate and the Sword .

Iai-jutsu not only has some overlap with karate it also has a lot of overlap with jujitsu, as you might expect. The sword is the weapon of the samurai and so is jujitsu. If a samurai was disarmed of his sword he would have to fight empty handed and so the art of jujitsu was developed. Samurai were particularly adept at Yoroi-kumi-uchi: Techniques for grappling in armour which required the combatants to use their hips and limbs in a particularly powerful fashion, allowing them to lock onto each other without actually grabbing the armour.

So my bokken training has taught me many things that are directly applicable to my karate training - I have learnt to move more fluidly and have learnt several jujitsu techniques that have improved my grappling skills in karate. I think that some selective cross-training like this is an excellent way of perfecting skills and body movements that transfer across different martial arts. Cross training can give you a new perspective on a similar technique learnt in your main art.

Another challenge of training with the bokken is learning how to move in a hakama! The first challenge is just getting the thing on and then learning how to get into and out of seiza without treading on it.....well, you can imagine the problems that presents!

Anyway, all is ready for the grading.

Here's a short video of  a Reishiki ceremony (beginning ceremony). The one we have to do is similar but about 3 times as long and requires quite a lot of standing up and kneeling down again!

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Friday, 3 December 2010

A British winter!

My street
Much of Britain is under a blanket of snow at the moment! Where I live we have had 18 inches of snow - this is a lot for us, especially as early as November. As Britons we really are not geared up for dealing with these conditions. As this is a relatively unusual situation for us the local councils can't justify buying expensive machinery to shift the snow and there is no compulsion (or habit) for people to fit winter snow tyres to their cars - the result is that side roads remain impassable and cars that do venture out slip and slide around or get stuck completely!
icicle hanging from the eaves!
My sons' have been off school for a week, though they did go back today;  local shops have run out of food because they can't receive deliveries; all bus services in my area have been cancelled completely and life has generally ground to a halt! My local express supermarket had a queue of at least 30 people trying to buy milk that had just been delivered but there has been no bread for 3 days!
My car!
However, we are a family of troopers! Both my husband and I have walked to work (6 miles for him, 3 miles for me) and my youngest son has continued to do his newspaper delivery round. Many other people have done the same thing - nothing seems to dampen the British spirit for long! I have never seen so many people walking around, clearing snow, shopping locally and just stopping for a chat. It's been quite a nice atmosphere - difficult situations do seem to bring out the best in people.
my hanging basket!
However, I've had enough of the snow now - I'd quite like it to disappear though with temperatures below zero it's not likely to happen soon! All my martial arts classes were cancelled this week and I'm getting withdrawal symptoms. I have done some training at home but it's not the same as going to class.
My back garden
I hope you've enjoyed my photos - no doubt you'll be thinking that this is nothing compared to what you have to endure every winter and I'm sure you'll be right! Have you had snow yet this winter? How do you cope with it where you are?

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