Author: Bret Gordon
When you're looking at traditional martial arts practice, many people offer the criticism that what is being practiced would never work "in the street." As a karateka and aikijujutsuka, I get this two-fold. It's fine, many people don't understand the intricacies and applications of Karatedo kata, so how can I expect them to understand the advanced biomechanics of aiki? However, more often than not, saying something isn't practical only shows your ignorance of what is being displayed. Not everything is as it seems, nor are they always meant to be taken at face value.
Now, I will clarify that there are certain things going on the martial arts that are just asinine. In no way am I going to even try to justify the "no touch knockout" groupies or the chi frauds that seem to be popping up all over the internet. To understand what separates true internal martial arts from chi frauds, click here. What I will do, or at least attempt to, is demonstrate to you the viability of certain drills and their practical application. If all you're looking for is the next big secret to cage fighting however, or the quickest way to be a deadly commando, this article isn't for you.
To understand why drills like kata are practiced, we must understand the origin of these martial arts systems. Many arts practiced today started out as, or are descended from, familial combative systems that were heavily guarded by the senior members of the clan. When an outsider would come looking for instruction, it was only normal (and necessary) to be skeptical of them as they might be under a false flag from a rival clan, looking to gain insight into your fighting strategies. As such, drills that were meant to mask the true application of what was being taught were developed so that the art can be transmitted without really being taught until the master decided to reveal it.
For example, without understanding the bunkai oyo, many people characterize Karatedo kata as nothing more than choreographed patterns somewhat resembling fighting techniques. Some people understand there is an application to kata, but they're not really sure what it is so they simply tell their students to imagine that they're fighting invisible opponents. However, very rarely is what you see in kata the actual technique being taught. Many techniques are concealed in the intricacies of movement - how you step, rotate the hips, etc. Often times, what looks like strikes are actually throws or locks. Your formal stances are actually finishing positions for techniques, hence why a zenkutsu dachi is not as mobile as a boxing-like fighting stance. It's not supposed to be.
Aiki Jujutsu and Karatedo have a lot in common. In jujutsu systems, kata are formalized paired techniques practiced from a specific attack and you execute a specific technique. In Aiki Jujutsu, we practice connection drills and balance tricks that have most people scratching their heads. Often times, these drills are commonly practiced from wrist grabs and the criticism is that in the street, no one is going to grab your wrist. While there certainly are situations where grabs happen, I'll concede it's not the most common attack between two grown men. But again, you're not understanding what you're looking at.
Aiki Jujutsu was originally called oshiki uchi and was taught to the Imperial guards. Within the palace, only they would be allowed to retain their swords. An intruder looking to do harm to the Emperor or Shogun would likely try to disarm one of the guards, so these wrist grabs are actually symbolizing someone grabbing the tsuka of your sword to remove it from the saya. Or they could be grabbing your opposite hand to stop you from drawing your sword while they use their free hand to strike you. Oshiki uchi techniques were designed to immediately off-balance the attacker so that they couldn't strike you or remove your sword, throw them to the ground and place you in a position to finish them off.
Today, no one is walking around with a sword (I hope) yet the lessons learned from these techniques still hold weight. I often teach these drills for firearm retention, as the principles are the same. Yet, there's an even broader application.
What you're truly learning with these drills is how to manipulate structure. Using skeletal alignment and soft tissue manipulation, we learn how to receive the force of the attacker, ground ourselves and return it using small rotations within the body. These rotations circumvent the strength of the attack and place the attacker in a compromising position where they can be locked or thrown. We practice these drills from wrist grabs, but they are meant to be worked up to full-on strikes and even weapon attacks. When you understand how to effortlessly manipulate the body, applying locks or throws that affect someone's entire structure instead of the localized point of contact become much more effective.
So just like Karatedo kata, what is being demonstrated is not the lesson. You need to pick apart the individual drills like a blueprint and extract the principles from them. I hate the word technique, because in our Western mind we view it as something finite. "They do this, so you do that and this happens." That's not how the real world works. You're forgetting that the attacker gets a vote too. He's never going to move like your training partner in class, and if you focus solely on the presented techniques, you will get hurt or worse.
That's why I call them drills. You'd never question why a boxer hits a speed bag, or shadow boxes in the mirror. We know the speed bag doesn't punch back, so why practice hitting it? The obvious answer is it because it helps you develop your fundamentals. And what are fundamentals? Principles! Learning how to move, timing, angles, precision, distance. All of these can be learned through various solo drills before you even step into the ring with a sparring partner. Kata is merely another type of solo exercise used to enhance movement and form. Aiki drills are exactly the same. Yes, in the dojo there a small measure of compliance. Even when instructed not to, your training partners will give a little because they have no malicious intent toward you. They aren't enraged or trying to do serious harm to you. It is a simulated assault. Things will never work exactly as they do in the dojo which is why if you focus solely on the technique as it is demonstrated and practiced, it will fail. It will fail because it is meant to fail.
Remember, the secrets guard themselves. You must take what is being taught, break it down and internalize the application. In Japanese arts, there is a concept called Shu, Ha, Ri. In the Shu phase, you are simply regurgitating what your instructor has shown you. When you reach Ha, you begin to understand the application of what you've learned. By Ri, you have completely internalized the principles of it and it is part of you. You have made it yours.
No, this is not the fastest way to learn how to defend yourself. This is definitely the long way around. It's a lot faster to go to the gym, get a training partner and just learn simple evasions and a few strikes that you know will be effective. However, keep in mind that there is no such thing as bare bones self defense. You can work the simplest, most effective techniques but unless you spend extensive time training the psychological aspects of an assault it isn't going to matter.
The purpose of martial arts, however, is to develop advanced combative skills. Anyone can pick up a gun and pull the trigger. Anyone can punch someone in the throat. What separates you from everyone else? In the real world, anything you can pull out of your sleeve that they haven't seen before will give you an advantage. Principles won't save your life, that's up to you. Nothing is ever guaranteed but when you understand the intricacies of fighting and survival, you have a much better chance of coming home safely. Being a fighter is easy. Being a warrior takes time. Which one are you?
This article was originally published on the US Association of Martial Arts blog. To view the original article, please click here.