While doing research for my previous article (you’ll notice the term sweat appearing in both of these posts), I ran across an awesome youtube video. Someone set a montage of clips from Bruce Lee movies to the tune of ‘don’t sweat the technique’ by Eric B. and Rakim. It makes for a very enjoyable watch.
It’s easy to forget what made Bruce Lee so dynamic and dominant. Check out a little bit of this video and you’ll remember:
For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of seeing a Bruce Lee movie, I recommend them highly. Here is a helpful hand in locating them:
Enter the Dragon (The most famous film. A martial arts epic!)
Return of the Dragon (Actually filmed before Enter the Dragon but renamed in America to capitalize off the success of Enter. Still Awesome)
Chinese Connection (Some consider this movie to have the best plot and message)
Fists of Fury (Bruce Lee’s breakout film)
Game of Death (This one is barely a movie, but still has good fight sequences)
Bruce Lee always preached fluidity and economy of motion. Certainly he didn’t sweat the technique, which is one reason why he was so great!
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For those of you who have seen the movies, help the newbies with your recommendations in the comments below!
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Hard work has always gone hand in hand with martial arts training. In fact, the term “Kung Fu” literally means “hard work”, with the term “Wushu” being a more accurate name for the Chinese art studied today.
Effort put into the martial arts often pays dividends that surprise people. A release of endorphins and natural stress relief are two common byproducts that leave practitioners thinking ‘yea, I could do this every week!’ Many teachers run rigorous sessions (especially at Gasshuku) in order to test the will and spirit of students, bringing them together and promoting strength of character.
So evident are the benefits of sweating and working out that sometimes we forget to do anything else.
The Cult of Sweat
Some people are naturally sweaty and start perspiring during the walk from the porch to the car. They can’t help it and it really has little bearing on their level of endurance. Even still, there seems to be a cult of sweat, as if the salty liquid were knowledge itself pouring out of the body.
The following individual, Ernie-San, is a respectable martial artist as far as I can tell. He has traveled to Okinawa for Gasshuku and in order to protect the lessons taught through his style he opts not to record the actual training. He did, however, record his badge of honor:
His sense of humor is fun and all that, but you can really tell that sweat is worth more than currency to him. I wonder – did Ernie-San get to probe the deep understanding and complex knowledge of the instructors, or did he spend most of his time busting his butt, site-seeing, and then going home.
Many times Okinawan instructors will give western students what they want – a rigorous run-through, more material, and a certificate of whatever (not saying this is Ernie-San’s case, just a general truth). It simply isn’t worth the instructor’s time to show the cultural details and deep subtleties that take long hours of contemplation and investigation. It’s much easier to make visitor’s sweat, work kata/basics/drills, and send them on their way.
Workout, Workout, Think About It
Basics are the key to any quality martial artist. Constant routine and repetition can make a person ‘brilliant at the basics’, as Bill Hayes Sensei likes to say. Drills, kihon, kata, bag work, etc drive much of martial arts training, no matter what style. Unfortunately many people believe that repetition alone is going to grant them deeper martial understanding. Albert Einstein once famously defined “Insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. The same is true for martial arts.
To truly improve in significant ways, practitioners have to learn about how their body moves and how they can effect results in other people. A straight punch is just a straight punch until you learn kime. The punch changes once you learn angling. It changes again once you improve your timing. Then it needs to be combined with kyusho, tuite, grappling, etc. That’s one technique. Now think about the spectrum of a whole kata. And that’s just in karate terms; each art can be faned out in the same way.
To even begin understanding these ideas and making them a part of your subconscious/effective self, you need to turn down the sweat for a little while, quiet the noise, and “listen”. Listen to techniques, your body, the opponent’s body, and how it all interacts.
How Thinking Can Go Awry
As I said earlier, the workout trap is all too enticing for practitioners. But the same goes for teachers. It’s much easier to run a class where you automate students through kata, bag work, and kihon rather than figuring out ways to make each one actively think and assess themselves.
Unfortunately too much ‘thinking’ can be a bad thing. An ‘armchair sensei’ is one who can quote you techniques, vital points, history, and stories of personal prowess but never seem to get off their can to actually do some hard work.
Armchair instructors and practitioners (and some soft stylists who rely too much on theory) run into a common problem – a brush with tough reality. Having trained with a lot of people bigger, tougher, and better than me, I can tell you that there is no magic bullet or amount of practice with imaginary foes that can prepare you for the actual striking and manipulating of a resistance opponent.
No bones about it – a strong body with good basics is key, and to get that you have to work hard.
A little Yin With a Little Yang
You gotta have both sweat and contemplation. You need times where you can run your techniques, but also an opportunity to work slowly and outside the normal confines of your style’s structure. You have to take off the reigns once in awhile and get attacked in unexpected ways to see how your body will handle itself (and I don’t mean sparring, which is a very structured event). You need to feel subtle movements in your opponent so you can improve your senses and natural reactions.
Black Belts Don’t Sweat
We have a joke in our dojo that ‘black belts don’t sweat’. It essentially began because my instructor Rick Zondlo and I are not naturally sweaty people. But what the joke really came to mean is that good technique happens when you are relaxed and ready, not tense or anxious.
When the body is in a tense state emotionally or physically it sweats; and as we established earlier, sweating is something many people desire in their training. Ultimately these practitioners end up cementing bad habits that promote physical and emotional tension rather than eliminating it! Furthermore, in order to work more muscle groups and get the whole body into the act, they tend to use more exaggerated actions than is necessary. So an inside block turns into a deep stanced, arm swinging event rather than a minute body shift and subtle arm movement (breathing and tension kata notwithstanding of course).
Focus is often misused during these workout states as well. The practitioner is thinking about the ‘good burn’ they are feeling and how soaked their sweat rag is rather than trying to eliminate wasteful portions of technique (not to mention the prideful ‘I drank X amount of water today’ conversation that always seems to follow).
A prime example of the relaxed body in action takes place during sparring. Have you ever met an older expert who can spar for an hour only to come away with a moist forehead, rather than being hunched over, panting and wheezing? These are individuals who have learned to use their body naturally, only exploding during techniques when the moment is right. Good distancing, angling, and control of centerline eliminates any sweat-inducing flailing.
There is an old saying that goes: ‘don’t work harder, work smarter’. For the martial arts, I would amend that to read: ‘don’t just work harder, also work smarter’.
Find people in your dojo who have good ego control and work techniques slowly, under control, and with no padding. Figure out ways to induce results with a minimum of exertion on your part. Don’t settle for compliant results (especially within arts like aikido that require good ukes); give yourself a chance to fail and work until you can do good technique on tough opponents that are behaving in ways not predictable to you.
Sweat itself isn’t a problem – it’s when sweat (and in a broader sense the workout mindset) becomes more important than the exploration of the arts themselves.
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I’d like to focus this post on another one of the weapons of Okinawan Kobudo. The kuwa, or hoe, is a very common and unremarkable piece of equipment. In fact, almost every agrarian society developed a version of the hoe. It’s that level of acceptance in standard society that makes it such a great tool for self defense. Even in old Okinawa a sword or spear would draw sidelong looks from both neighbors and Japanese guard…but a hoe was completely natural and understood.
Anatomy of a Kuwa
This is a picture of my kuwa, generously constructed for me by my instructor Rick Zondlo. For those of you who love details, I included the names of the parts above (impress your friends at parties). If you’d like to buy your own kuwa, find handles here and blades here.
When trying to pronounce the name of the handle “e”, say it as “ehh” and not “ee”. The rest of the parts follow suit (ehh-jee-ree, ehh-gah-she-rah, koo-wah-bah).
Using the Kuwa
When people first think about using the kuwa, they usually imagine a big gashing motion with the blade edge. It would seem at first glance that this is the most devastating move for the weapon. While that is indeed an option, there are actually more dynamic tactics you can utilize.
First of all, the egashira (top end) can be used for thrusting purposes. As opposed to relying purely on large swinging motions, the kuwa can be prepped almost like a bo and thrust forward at extremely quick velocity. Due to its relatively small size, the egashira can also be pulled back quickly and “reloaded” for another thrust.
The reverse end of the egashira (as in, the side opposite the cutting hoe blade), is also utilized. Swinging motions with this part of the kuwa result in blunt trauma. This may seem less effective than a full-on blade strike, but it also allows for quick follow-up techniques. If there are multiple opponents, or reasons to hit one opponent more than once, it is critical not to get the blade stuck or snagged in the opponent’s clothes, body, etc.
The ejiri (butt end) is an equally important aspect of kuwa technique. If you have a hoe with a thick metal blade plate, it can be fairly hefty at the top. This results in slower movements, especially when compared to a perfectly balanced weapon like a sword. In order to compensate for that disadvantage, one can use the ejiri as the initial blocking and striking aspect, and then follow up with a finishing technique with the solid front end.
The ejiri can be manipulated very quickly. When holding a kuwa with the ejiri facing your opponent and the heavy metal end to the rear, the metal actually serves as a fulcrum and helps increase the speed and dynamics of the ejiri. What results is a tool that can keep pace even with fast weapons, but can then follow up with punishing, heavy blows.
Here is a look at a rare kuwa kata called kue no di. As far as I know, this is the only officially established kuwa kata still practiced:
You’ll notice a great variety of strikes used, and also some scenarios where dirt is being thrown. Remember, Okinawan self defense was never designed to play by a set of rules! Dirt, sand, and sun in the opponent’s eyes are all very viable tactics.
When it comes to handling the kuwa itself, the hand position is either sword style or thrust style. In sword style, the hands are both toward the bottom end, about two hands width apart. In thrust style, one hand is toward the top, the other at the bottom.
Now let’s take a look at the kuwa in action. For this I will be recruiting the help of Nishiuchi Sensei, as he has a great video on the topic (note: Nishiuchi Sensei’s partner has excellent hair and acting ability):
You’ll’ notice that when using the kuwa Nishiuchi Sensei initially concerns himself with controlling centerline. He’ll use small circles and blocks to clear a path to strike. After that “opener” he will come in with bigger arcing attacks. This is a key concept for the use of kuwa.
When you first start using kuwa, you are probably going to be caught off guard by how bulky the top end feels. The harder you swing, the harder it wants to drag your body weight with it. After awhile though it becomes less of a burden and you open up to the idea of using the ejiri.
If you’ve got a garden and understanding neighbors, maybe it’s time to start integrating a little technique! Show those tomatoes you mean business.
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