The Boa That Swallowed an Elephant: Part II

First, if you are using say, the muscles of the shoulder girdle (even augmented by hips and “taking the center”, or whatever) then you are using the very same utensils that the attacker is using. Unless you are very extraordinary, both you and the attacker are of the same order of magnitude in terms of strength, speed, etc., and hence it is somewhat unrealistic to expect consistent success. It is as though two gunslingers were standing out in the street about to “draw down” on each other. Both have the same implements (pistols), and since it is unlikely that one participant is significantly faster than the other, success cannot be predicted. That is why that scenario, so often portrayed in cinema, almost never happened. And because of the demand for speed, any appeal to principles (sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control) becomes severely degraded when flinching in response to an attack.

Second: The success most of us have with natural skills is both ubiquitous and compelling. To the extent we possess speed, strength, and agility, to that extent the greater our success at physical endeavors. The martial artist I alluded to above was an extraordinary athlete, possessed natural skills in abundance, and had proved himself a fair hand in a fight. Thus, there is nothing second-rate about using one’s natural skills. But it is important to recognize the distinction we are making. The ability to be able override the flinch response, which is necessary to apply principles is very difficult, and requires a significant retraining such that a new set of responses replaces one natural abilities. Therein lies both the complexity and the difficulty of an art like taiji quan. Most martial artists have not met anyone who could apply taiji principles. Like les gens serieux they see a hat, and have never learned to see what is inside of things. If they have met someone, they are convinced that their own skills, or the skills of their teacher are adequate to whatever tasks they feel they need to prepare for. Finally, for those who do study an internal art, many, perhaps most, will not attain a high level of skill. Let me put that less despairingly: Of those who practice an internal art, most will have too much confidence in the natural abilities to devote themselves to cultivating a new set of principles. Those that do so, however, will achieve their goal.

It is easy to talk about principles, it is difficult to elucidate them. For the nonce I’ll restrict the universe to discourse to what taiji calls the “six harmonies” or integrations. There are the three external integrations of: hand and opposite foot, elbow and opposite knee, and shoulder and opposite hip. There are also the three internal integrations of shen, yi, and, qi but these are technical terms peculiar to the internal martial arts.

I am of the opinion that modern Uechi ryu, in its adoption of an overly tense and stiff sanchin kata, leaves no room for the three external harmonies. Modern Aikido, also in my opinion, when push comes to shove, has likewise failed to achieve whole-body integration.  Moreover, whatever tenuous roots modern aikido has with the sword are any longer very difficult to determine.

Principles infuse movement at the cellular level, affect how one organizes the body. Contrariwise, techniques are more like the practice of prearranged scenarios of possible situations. An while Uechi ryu and Aikido practitioners would  assuredly claim to be practicing principle-based martial arts, it is very difficult for me, even after a lot of study, to elucidate exactly what those principles are.  That is not to say either art cannot be effective. I will repeat again that external martial arts are not inferior to internal martial arts. In fact for the majority they are more so.  I also know practitioners of both arts which are truly fearsome fighters. But I remain convinced that even such great ability is the result of the cultivation of natural abilities by a rigorous practice ethic.

Katori Shinto Ryu is at a bit of a crossroads. The art claims a celestial progenitor, Marishiten, a deity brought in courtesy of Shingon Buddhism, and who has a long association with warrior societies. She (or he, the iconography varies) is also said to be able to confer invisibility on her devotees on the battlefield. Moreover, oral tradition includes in katori’s curriculum many of the elements of esoteric Buddhism which, again according to tradition, are essential to the practice of the art.

What is striking of course is the fact that no one practices Katori in that manner today. At least no one I know does. Thus, while at one time someone might have been able to answer the question: “What are the principles of Katori”, at present the best anyone can do is to demonstrate the techniques of the art. But remember, principles are based on understanding, while techniques are based on bodily responses.

The rather glaring dichotomy outlined above is something that I believe my Katori teacher, Sugawara sensei, has thought deeply about. In personal conversations with me, and with others, he has expressed a desire to try to discover what an “original” Katori would have looked like. He also realizes that any solution he comes up with is probably unverifiable. But what I find remarkable is that, in trying to find a set of principles to infuse the tactics or Katori, to give Katori a meta level, if you will, he has drawn deeply on his experiences in the Chinese internal martial arts, in particular taiji quan.

While Katori is not, essentially, an internal martial art, it is quite compatible with the three external integrations. Being external, they are ostensible, can be articulated, and their value can be demonstrated. But as is often the case, for most students, their natural abilities (speed, strength, and agility) are so beguiling, that often Sensei’s observations are given little shrift. This is not so much a criticism, as a statement of the complexity of the task.

Because vision is the most primary of our senses, and people naturally judge on appearances, seeing un chapeau will always be the default over seeing a boa which has swallowed an elephant. Similarly, and for the same reasons, our natural bodily responses will always be the default criteria by which we judge a martial art. And while there is no reason whatsoever to give up a martial art you love in favor of one which I love; there is every reason not to be ignorant of the landscape.

The Boa That Swallowed an Elephant: Part I

In my opinion one of the great novels of the 20th century, or any century for that matter, is Antoine de St. Exupery’s  illustrated classic, The Little Prince. There is a chapter at the outset in which the author relates how,, at the age of six, and after having seen a story in a book about how a boa constrictor would swallow their prey whole, he submits his rendition of “a boa that swallowed an elephant” (the drawing at the top) to the adults for their perusal.  Their usual  response was to exclaim, “how cute, un chapeau (hat)”.  Thereafter when he wanted to distinguish between “les gens serieux” (the serious ones who only saw the outside of things), and those who saw deeply, he would show them his drawing of “the boa who swallowed an elephant”.

The martial arts world as well admits of no dearth of serious people, those who wish to sort out the “classical mess” of traditional martial arts, and refashion them to be more “effective”. Usually these are people who are plentifully endowed with “natural skills” (speed, strength, agility, etc.) and who, by dint of those abilities, have proven themselves quite formidable in whatever competitive arena is associated with their art of choice. I first noticed the trend in the karate world where, in point based competition (or even in full contact for that matter) ninety percent of a given system was jettisoned in favor of a couple of kicks and punches. Since those techniques were not useful in their world, the extrapolation was made that they were not useful in any world. The phenomenon was not limited to the karate world however.  One very famous martial artist, a magnificent athlete (albeit with a dubious resume) made quite a name for himself and even coined the term “classical mess”.

My take on all of this, is not that these men (or women) could not fight, in some cases they most certainly could, but that like “les gens serieux”  they could only see the things that were on the outside, i.e. external.  Put differently, they often failed to distinguish between a principle based martial art, and a technique based martial art.

I will not presume to comment on arts I have not studied, but I do submit the following examples from arts I have some small experience with.

When I first began studying Uechi ryu karate it purported to be a principle based martial art, and having only three kata, it held out sanchin kata as the core of the system. At that time the style had no closed fist techniques (it did, however,  have a one-knuckle fist), and virtually all techniques in the other two kata were preceded by a control technique. Sanchin kata, however, came with no users manual other than to perform it as a dynamic tension exercise in which, not knowing precisely what to tense, everything was tensed so as not to leave anything out. This of course made for great strength and stiffness, but over time  it also had the effect of reducing whatever meta information was contained in sanchin to ones’ ability to tense their muscles. In other words, the system has evolved into a set of techniques making use of the practitioner’s natural skills.

My take on all of this, is not that these men (or women) could not fight, in some cases they most certainly could, but that like “les gens serieux”  they could only see the things that were on the outside, i.e. external.  Put differently, they often failed to distinguish between a principle based martial art, and a technique based martial art.

I will not presume to comment on arts I have not studied, but I do submit the following examples from arts I have some small experience with.

When I first began studying Uechi ryu karate it purported to be a principle based martial art, and having only three kata, it held out sanchin kata as the core of the system. At that time the style had no closed fist techniques (it did, however, have a one-knuckle fist), and virtually all techniques in the other two kata were preceded by a control technique. Sanchin kata, however, came with no user’s manual other than to perform it as a dynamic tension exercise in which, not knowing precisely what to tense, everything was tensed so as not to leave anything out. This of course made for great strength and stiffness, but over time it also had the effect of reducing whatever meta information was contained in sanchin to ones’ ability to tense their muscles. In other words, the system has evolved into a set of techniques making use of the practitioner’s natural skills.

Aikido first caught my attention by promising a set of techniques based on principles. It made frequent mention of ki, circles, and “using an attacker’s energy against them, taking the center, etc. However, whereas karate’s operating system started fail when faced with tournament competition, Aikido, eschewing competition for the most part, begins to self-destruct with a stubborn training partner. It is not that Aikido’s desiderata is mistaken, it is that like Uechi ryu’s sanchin, there is no user’s manual for putting the body’s natural flinch response aside when facing a determined attack. Based on what we know of him I am perfectly willing to admit the Aikido’s founder was able to “penetrate the mist”. And while this was something he probably learned from his teacher, I do not believe it was something he was capable of teaching. Hence, when faced with an unchoreographed attack, the aikidoka will generally resort to his natural allotment of speed, strength, and timing, to apply an aikido technique. I believe Aikido has a very useful set of tactics. As a system of “bone-locking” it is very effective. But after studying the art for several decades I remain unconvinced it is anything but a useful set of techniques. Whatever meta content was envisioned by Ueshiba Sensei I suspect has been lost.

Before I continue, and lest I offend, I am not saying that Uechi ryu, or Aikido, are essentially not principle based, or put differently, simply catalogued techniques, the one of Okinawan progeny, and the other Japanese. What I am saying is that if one is not aware of the difference between a principle and a technique, then one is going to rely on that which comes naturally; namely a flinch response, or what taiji calls “double weighting”. While the term may mean a lack of separation of weight between the substantial and the insubstantial leg, its larger sense is that when one uses a flinch response to deal with “trouble”, then one retreats from the level of principle, and fights on the level of “natural” technique.

And about that, two comments:

Continues in Part II

Teaching Taiji to Beginners is a Little different

Usually teaching is a meta activity such that when I am teaching an activity like  gun handling and safety, or Katori, working on my skills takes a very backseat to the main activity of helping the student work on theirs.  This is in no way to imply that teaching is neither very enjoyable (which it is), nor that one can not learn a great deal about a subject by having to articulate that subject to a student (one can); but for most activities one cannot teach effectively and practice at the same time. Teaching and training are different skill sets, each with their own craft.

For instance, when I teach Katori at my dojo in Mordor (Maryland), there will be 18 -25 students on the mat and the act of concentrating on their technique means that I have little time to train on my own.  Even if I pair off with one of the senior students to train in a two-person exercise, I am primarily evaluating their technique, and only secondarily my own.

And since Katori mandates that all new techniques are taught by those with a teaching license, I spend much of my time on the mat teaching a new kata (form) to students.  When I am thus engaged, there is not much opportunity to work on my own technique.

But teaching taiji is a little different.  Like Katori, when teaching taiji  I spend most of my time working with new students, leading them slowly  through however much of the form they have been shown. But although learning the form is important, and hence I have to lead people through the sequence (the external movements),  learning the sequence is not the end, but rather the means to develop the internal integrations of shen, yi, qi, and jin. Thus, when leading the class slowly through the form, not only CAN I concentrate on taiji principles (internal in nature), I pretty much HAVE to in order to lead the class correctly.

Of course one has to spend some time doing the meta activity of simply observing, and correcting. But much of the class is spent simultaneously both teaching taiji, and practicing taiji.  Hence, after teaching even a very basic class for an hour and fifteen minutes I am quite exhausted – not so much physically, but mentally.

To put all this a little differently:  Although I love teaching Katori I cannot say after a two hour class at my dojo that I have practiced much Katori. Similarly, when I giving instruction on sight picture/sight alignment and trigger control, I am not myself  getting any practice with the fine motor skills involved.

But when I am teaching taiji I pretty much of necessity have to be doing (at least internally) what I am teaching.

That is why even though I sometimes teach at a senior center, where most of my students are older, I can consider the time I spend teaching there not as a diversion from “good practice”, but rather as additional practice time.