Thursday, August 26, 2010

Looking "Pretty" vs. Being Practical

Since the school year has again begun, I dropped by my sister dojo last night after my journalism class. The first night of training - especially for college students who probably took most of the summer off from anything karate-related - can be tough on the ol' cardiovascular system, and after about two hours of kihon, Sensei G mercifully cut his winded karateka a break and moved to Aiki Jitsu techniques, which in our system are escapes from wrist grabs and chokes.

When you're in the thick of training in any Okinawan system, it's sometimes easy to forget that the techniques we study were designed by and for body types that are very different from that of the folks on the mat with you. I'm sure that Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-Ryu, created his hard/soft style with smaller Okinawan male body types in mine. I guess then it would stand to reason that the students in the dojo last night who were over 5'5" tall and/or female might have some difficulty executing the techniques the way they were originally intended to be executed - which of course included my 6'2" self, my 6'3" uke and about 95% of the class.

Of the 12 of us on the mat, six were brand new 6th kyus who were just learning the Aiki techniques Sensei G called. Since he'd matched us up with ukes based on body size, all the pairings were relatively even - which meant that if the tori/nage had issues with the grip, punch or kick based on the uke's body type, their partner had the same issue when it was his or her turn to execute the technique.

In other words, when problems arose - and they did - the nage had a decision to make: do the technique as described/demonstrated or make it work effectively for them with a little modification. My uke and I modified like crazy - enough so that when waza go (technique #5) called for a 45-degree angle step off the centerline to the right followed by a punch to the face then a spinning hook kick to the gut, we ended up having to step 90-degrees in order to not be too close to get the hook kick off. Interestingly enough, two of the shortest students decreased the angle so they could not only reach the face with the punch but reach the body with the kick. If you studied just our angles, neither of us would have looked like the textbook demo of the technique, although each of us was effective as all get out. But I could hear the murmurings of the group: should it be done like it was originally shown or like we'd done it?

The answer, unfortunately, might depend on who you ask. If the technique was to part of a presentation for, say, a grading, my first sensei always said it's best to follow the "letter of the law" and do the technique exactly as it has been demonstrated (he also encouraged "looking pretty" during kata - you know, holding poses and really making sure the techniques LOOK good - but that's another story). Sensei S doesn't encourage what he calls "Kodak moments" (as in pausing to smile for the camera, LOL), but the idea is the same. But do I really just want to LOOK like I'm doing an effective technique or do I actually want to DO a technique that actually is effective for me?

At a grading once, I got chided for making another Aiki technique work more effectively for me. An escape from a front choke, the technique called for reaching across my body and over the choking arms of my uke before grabbing one his/her wrists then using my forearm to pin his/her arm to my chest. Worked like a charm when my uke was my size or smaller, but against my larger training partners who offered even an iota of resistance (which is what a real attacker would most likely do), my skinny little arm didn't even move theirs, much less pin it. Instead, I reached under one of my uke's arms to grab the wrist. I was still able to lock the wrist and finish the rest of the technique, but my grader insisted that I do the technique the "right" way. It looked good, but I'm sure it wouldn't have worked for spit against someone trying to do me harm and who was lots stronger than me. Extremely frustrating to say the least - because the way I see it is this: how I train to do it will most likely be how I will actually do it when I need it to help me get out of a bad situation. I realize the two aren't mutually exclusive, but it seems like sometimes they can be.

Which do you do in training - "pretty" textbook techniques or effective ones that get the job done? How do you rectify it when the two aren't one in the same?


  1. Wow Felicia, it sounds like your sensei is pretty prescriptive in how you have to do it. We don't actually have any set techniques that we have to learn. All our ippon and self-defence techniques are done through guidance and experimentation to find things that work for us. It's more important that we adhere to principles of movement rather than learning specific techniques. For example, sensei would be looking that we were placing our feet and shifting our body weight around effectively to economise movement and unbalance the opponent. It wouldn't matter if you chose zenkutsu dachi or shiko dachi, blocked inside or outside, punched or kicked as long as it was effective. For grading we are expected to compose our own ippon and goshin waza techniques based on things we have learnt in class. Sensei will provide ideas if we are stuck but after that we just work on them with our partner.

    Your more prescriptive approach reminds me of my jujitsu club where details of specific techniques are adhered to more tightly.

    However for kata performance looking pretty is much more the name of the game! We are encouraged to put in those 'kodak' moments :-)

  2. Hi, Sue...It isn't so much my sensei, but the style's curriculum that dictates those specific Aiki techniques. My sensei insists that we be better able to "flow" than those rigid "do it exactly like this!" requirements dictate. In other words, we HAVE TO know them as part of under-belt grading requirements, but he requires us to know much more...

    The class I went to last week was really a review for the new 6th kyus who'd been off all summer. The sensei there - like many others in the style - use those techniques as stepping stones to the "flow" - but until those techniques are known cold, it is sort of hard to move forward. It's almost seen like kihon in a way - necessary basics that are done over and over and over again. The issue that night was the introduction of some new ones to the group (I already knew them, which is how I knew how and where to modify them accordingly). Sorry if that wasn't clear.

    I like your sensei's "guidance and experimentation" way of teaching ippon and self-defense techniques. The ability to think on one's feet is so important when it comes to martial arts. It seems like he encourages you to do just that, which is a very good thing...

    Thanks for stopping by :-)

  3. Our school is a little less rigid about the techniques. The story goes that Taika developed his art to work against any body type and practiced against unruly GIs in Okinawan bars. I feel like we're given the technique and allowed to make it our own.
    "show me a technique against a wrist grab from Niahanchi Shodan." is a common question heard during testing. Not asking for a specific technique... usually. Wink. It's good to keep kyus on their toes.

  4. For kata, sure, you should try to look sharp (without, as you put it, smiling for the camera).

    For Kyokushin, though, kumite is a whole other story.