Training Paradoxes

Posted on: Sat, 08/13/2016 - 06:00 By: Tom Swiss

Sometimes in your training you're going to hear contradictory things. Maybe I tell you to do a certain stance one way, and then a few weeks later I tell you to do it a different way, or you go take your promotion test and Sei Shihan Kate tells you something different.

Now, sometimes that's because I was just wrong the first time! It does happen.

Or sometimes there's more than one way to do something. A few weeks ago we went over two different ways to do ushiro mawashi geri, the back spin kick. So if I like one way and another instructor likes a different way, sometimes that's ok, we could both be right.

And sometimes you'll be doing something differently at two different times. So maybe one day I'll tell you to make your jodan uke higher, and another day tell you to not make your jodan uke so high -- maybe it was too low one day and too high the other. Or maybe we're drilling different aspects at different times, so I tell you that you need to kick faster one day, then next week I'm making you do it slowly, to emphasize different parts of the skill.

Everything Is Contingent

Posted on: Thu, 06/23/2016 - 00:44 By: Tom Swiss

A few weeks ago I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of the World Seido Karate Organization. One evening featured a Seido history roundtable with our founder, Kaicho (Chairman) Tadashi Nakamura and some of his senior students, people who had been there since the start, or nearly so -- or before the start, in some cases, people who had started training with Kaicho Nakamura when he was still part of his old organization, the Kyokushin-kai.

One story that came up is a dramatic event that happened shortly after Nakamura left the Kyokushin-kai. His autobiography tells how he was shot, probably by a Mafia hitman -- I've always gotten a bit of a black humor chuckle of the way the book jacket says he was "gunned down in a Manhattan parking lot" in contrast to the way the calm way the story is told in the book, how he and a few students were trying to fix a flat tire on Nakamura's car (in retrospect, an apparent trap) when they heard a loud noise, and he only realized he'd been shot in the leg when he went to chase after the shooter (!) and his leg started to hurt. Fortunately the bullet had passed cleanly through the muscle. Many of us assumed that the shooter had been trying to "kneecap" him, to end his martial arts career with a crippling injury.


Posted on: Wed, 05/25/2016 - 09:34 By: Tom Swiss

If I walked into the room to teach my youth karate class, found a mess, and asked my students, "Who is responsible for this?", they would probably think I was trying to find out who to blame. Whose fault was it that this had occurred? We often think of words like "blame" when the word "responsibility" comes up.

But there's another sense of the word which is right there in the pronunciation, if not in the English spelling: "response-able". Indeed the word comes to us French "responsable", and the 1913 Websters gives one definition as "Able to respond or answer for one's conduct". We can trace it back to the Latin "spondeō" meaning "I promise, bind or pledge myself."

What Is A Black Belt?

Posted on: Sat, 04/09/2016 - 20:37 By: Tom Swiss

I spent this past weekend in New York, at the headquarters dojo (Honbu) of the World Seido Karate Organization. Dozens of students were testing for black belt levels, and I was there to support my fellow students from Maryland and to help out a little with the testing. That included getting up at 5am to help with the sparring Sunday morning. There are very few things in this world for which I will wake up at 5am on a Sunday, but getting to be part of the story of someone's black belt test is one of them.

Who's The Best?

Posted on: Mon, 02/15/2016 - 00:28 By: Tom Swiss

Imagine that you have two stacks of wood. One pile of very fine and straight boards, and one pile of knotty and crooked ones.

And imagine that you give these two piles of wood to two woodworkers. You give Alice the knotty and crooked wood, and Bob the nice straight boards.

Both Alice and Bob build tables with their wood. Bob builds a nice table from his nice wood. And from her poor wood, Alice builds a table that's okay. Not as nice as Bob's, but okay.

Who's the better woodworker here, Alice or Bob? Bob's table is nicer, but he started with an advantage. We could argue that though Alice finished "behind" Bob, she came a lot farther and demonstrated more skill. Of course she also had more opportunity to show skill, so we shouldn't jump to the conclusion she's the better woodworker; maybe Bob would do a little better with that crooked wood. The point is that we can't trivially judge based on final results alone, we have to consider starting points.

One Thousand Punches, One Hell of a Bird

Posted on: Mon, 01/18/2016 - 00:07 By: Tom Swiss

Spoilers ahead for the penultimate episode of the most recent season of Doctor Who. If you're a Whovian and the second part of this article's title doesn't make you say "oooh!", come back after you've caught up, I don't want to spoil one of the BEST EPISODES OF A TV SHOW EVER for you.

Like many dojo, we have a special New Years class. "Kagami biraki" literally means "opening the mirror"; in traditional Japanese homes, there is a celebration around January 11th involving breaking apart a rice cake (somewhat in the same vein as "breaking bread" in Western cultures) whose round shape suggests a mirror -- or opening a cask of sake, again with a round lid -- that marks the end of the New Year holiday season. But in the traditional budo kagami biraki is a New Years intense training session that is an opportunity to renew our spirit and our dedication for the coming year.

Defending the Non-Self

Posted on: Sun, 01/10/2016 - 02:43 By: Tom Swiss

Years ago I stepped in to break up an incipient fight at a Fells Point bar. (It's something I've done more than once; while I can't really recommend playing amateur bouncer as a hobby, I'm constitutionally unable to sit back and let violence happen in my presence.) Two guys got into an argument, there was a certain amount of chest thumping and some pushing; it's a script I've seen play out dozens of times. One of the gentlemen involved -- let's call him Smart Guy -- decided it wasn't worth the hassle and started to leave. The other guy -- let's call him Dumb Guy, maybe that's uncharitable but it will do -- started to pursue him, and stood in the doorway yelling threats.

I had already interposed myself between the disputants, so I was also standing in the doorway, facing Dumb Guy and the inside of the bar, blocking his way and trying to talk him down. (Inventive dialog like "C'mon, it's over dude, let it go, chill.") So when Dumb Guy decided he was going to chase Smart Guy down the street, he had to push past me.

I decided to not permit this.

Girls Kick Butt

Posted on: Thu, 12/03/2015 - 00:03 By: Tom Swiss

Last Tuesday (the class before Thanksgiving) we had a bit of a milestone in my youth class. If we don't count myself or the brown belts who were helping with class, we had more girls than boys in the class. I think that's the first time that's happened since we started that class. We usually have more men and boys than women and girls.

Shen Leads Qi

Posted on: Thu, 11/05/2015 - 16:57 By: Tom Swiss

In Chinese Medicine, we say that "shen (神) leads qi (氣)". Shen (in Japanese, shin) is our spirit or mind, and qi (ki in Japanese) is our energy, though we don't mean "energy" here in the same way that your physics teacher does.

Sometimes it's said that shen leads yi (意 -- focus, concentration, studying memory) which then leads qi. And sometimes we say that qi leads blood (血) or jing (精, essence), both of which are sort of seen as more solidified forms of qi. But the important point is that the mind leads the rest.

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