Whenever I am teaching bunkai and self defense I advise students to “create a disturbance” before applying a joint lock.
A disturbance could be a strike to the body or face that causes the attacker to focus on the pain instead of you. It could mean a subtle pulling off-balance that puts the opponent in a position of weakness. It could also be as simple as a movement of your body and hands that causes the attacker to critically expose his/her body.
By utilizing disturbance you can circumvent the strength, focus, and potential counterattacks of a live attacker. Often in the vacuum of a dojo we can apply punishing joint locks that make our partners whimper. Unfortunately we are working with a level of compliance that ignores the power of adrenaline charged muscles (which can ignore pain and significantly resist your efforts) and the volatility of swinging fists, feet, and forehead of an opponent that wants to take you out.
There is a great video of Taiji (tai chi) exponent Yang Hefa demonstrating what can happen to an attacker who is trying to apply various locks and maneuvers without doing anything else to create an initial disturbance. Yang is free to think and react naturally, and the results for the attacker are unimpressive and sobering.
As you were watching you probably had the instinct to say “just elbow him! punch him in the face! Perform KoshiNage! etc”. But that’s not really the point of the video as I’m sure Yang Hefa could have performed plenty of nasty techniques himself. What Yang is really showing is the ability to weave, bob, and slink his way out of some of the most commonly used grappling techniques.
Yang’s tricks are really not that hard to understand –
- first, he is staying very relaxed. Many joint lock techniques are exacerbated by tension in the defender rather than sheer skill of the attacker.
- Second, he keeps himself perfectly balanced and his weight underside, which makes off-balancing techniques for his opponent very difficult.
- Third, Yang knows how to move with the force of his opponent, accept it, and redirect it when the attacker over-commits.
Is this video just a demonstration? Of course, but there are a lot of valuable takeaways. Next time you find yourself in a grappling or tegumi situation, take note of the amount of tension in your body. Figure out how your weight is distributed and if it is vulnerable to over-exposure.
If you feel yourself being put into a lock or bar, instead of resisting it with muscular strength experiment with rolling your body and moving with the motion. Find some willing and good humored training partners and see if you can frustrate them.
Finally take note of the possibility of failure when grappling and the need to move quickly to other techniques and methods. I personally recommend creating a disturbance in the opponent to distract his mind so that he can’t resist, or worse yet, show off skill like Yang’s.
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**note: this is an abbreviated ‘big picture’ discussion of a very expansive topic. Forgive the necessary timeline jumps and generalizations used to paint the broader picture.**
Hierarchy is a polarizing mechanism. When it’s working fair and properly, individuals can benefit. When it is corrupted or run incompetently, everybody suffers (except perhaps those at the top). Hierarchy is a powerful tool, and in the martial arts, it is thrust into the hands of people who may or may not deserve it.
In many modern countries a high premium is placed on individual freedoms. Very rarely do we quietly tolerate anything that impedes our rights as citizens. The military, out of need for cohesion and order, is a rare example of effective hierarchy in modern times. Of course there are a myriad of other hierarchies in our lives, including work, family, school, etc., but none of those are as staunch and unyielding as the military.
In the midst of a thousand civilian activities and pastimes lies the martial arts. No basketball coach or yoga teacher holds the same authority and power over subordinates as the martial arts Sensei. Ironically, no coach or teacher could get away with the same lack of credentials and know-how as a slick, philandering ‘Master’ (if a basketball coach can’t win, they’ll be replaced. If a yoga instructor can’t hold a position, they’ll be replaced. If a martial arts instructor can’t defend him/herself or even perform a technique properly, they can still get by with fast talk or big claims).
The use and abuse of the exceedingly strong civilian hierarchy utilized by the martial arts has a long and complex history.
Where Martial Arts Hierarchy Came From
As it stands today, the hierarchy in martial arts stems from two predominant places. The first of which is traditional eastern culture. Born from a mixture of beliefs, but based most dominantly out of Confucianism, the Asian people have always placed high value on order and levels of authority. As one Sensei once joked to me with tongue-in-cheek, “if the Japanese saw three piles of dirt, they would name one Renshi dirt, one Kyoshi dirt, and one Hanshi dirt.”
The order of Asian society has influenced everything they do, from family life to dojo life. This structure has led to some amazing advances in their societies, and some behavior that is often seen as confusing and even disturbing (i.e. Seppuku and kamikaze pilots).
The Okinawans, while less militaristic in their day-to-day hierarchies, also put great emphasis on order, especially in regards to families, instructors, and community status.
As westerners came to learn the martial arts, they inherently absorbed the methods and mindsets of their teachers. This was compounded by the simple fact that many of the early western students were military personnel looking to improve their odds of survival in combat.
As mentioned earlier, the military is one of the most effective and inflexible modern day hierarchies. When young people were molded in that system, they absorbed the hierarchical aspects of military training. Being sharp and at-attention made sense to them, and not questioning what their instructors said or did was second nature.
When those early instructors came back to their home countries and started their own dojos, they built schools using the lens they knew best – strict, unyielding hierarchy.
How Hierarchy Came To Be What It Is
The example of karate hierarchy is very intriguing and a bit unique. Most scholars and historians believe that karate was developed as a civilian art, used by the Royal Court Guard (think Motobu Udundi), military police, and civilians. In fact it is commonly believed that one of karate’s greatest progenitors, Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura, was in charge of the court guard at one point in his life.
Although the background of karate is diverse, it was not intended SPECIFICALLY for battlefield use. Instead it was taught down family lines and within tight knit circles of friends and relatives. The teaching, despite what we see in a lot of modern dojo, was not extremely regimented. There were no excessive amounts of ceremony. In fact, since the learning groups were so small, they often started and stopped in completely unstructured ways and utilized subtle teacher/student etiquette.
However, as with other martial arts, many of the westerners that first learned karate were military folk. When they brought karate back with them, they took the techniques they learned from their Sensei and the organizational structure they learned from the military and melded them together. Thus was born the crisp, at-attention, BOW TO YOUR SENSEI type of mindset that has become prevalent throughout some martial arts circles (for better or worse).
As is the way in martial arts, students who learn a brand of hierarchy, whether it be relaxed or strict, tend to continue that tradition.
The Benefits of Martial Arts Hierarchy
Regardless of the specific level of strictness in a given dojo, there are a few concepts that seem pervasive. For example, there is always a matter of respect for seniors. Juniors in the dojo are expected to listen patiently to those ranked higher than them, and not speak belligerently to them no matter what the circumstances. This emphasis on respect is a massively positive aspect of traditional training.
Many individuals, children especially, can go through their whole lives without having to show respect to anyone. In the martial arts , however, you won’t get very far without it. Respect is one of the most crucial personality traits when it comes to keeping an open mind and understanding other people.
A sister benefit to respect is discipline. Although discipline takes a very visceral form in the martial arts dojo (bowing, standing still, listening quietly, etc) it becomes more and more valuable in a person’s daily life. Discipline in the dojo translates to self discipline, and self discipline is a cornerstone to personal success.
The hierarchy of a dojo can often be a microcosm for what people can expect in the real world. Students who learn the intricacies of handling superiors, subordinates, and ‘equals’ can often translate those skills into the workplace and home environments.
The hierarchy of a dojo can also provide serious motivation for students to achieve. The desire to ‘move up the ladder’ and command the presence and respect that seniors get can become palpable, and students are sometimes able to push themselves beyond what they thought was attainable. It is a goal-setting ideal that can teach people to move beyond their perceived limits and take charge of their own destiny.
The Pitfalls of Martial Arts Hierarchy
The benefits discussed can be perverted more easily than you might suspect. The desire for respect can often lead to a lust for power. Vanity and self-importance are traits not uncommon in martial arts ‘masters’ who wield their position like a club.
The ability to start a dojo and place people underneath you is astoundingly easy. Literally anyone can do it. Therefore, people that have no outlet for their self-aggrandizement often use martial arts to satisfy their needs.
Command, power, and influence are highly addictive ‘substances’. Just like John Kreese of the Cobra Kai in the picture above, some instructors enjoy seeing a little army consisting of versions of themself, ready to listen, follow, and take commands.
If you doubt the addictive powers of martial arts achievement, observe the gaining of rank, trophies, certificates of mastery, and dozens of black belts by some practitioners. Although these accolades are occasionally well deserved, often they are used to fuel the ego.
You’ll notice that when describing the serious issues inside the arts I didn’t say “All strict hierarchies are bad, and all loose hierarchies are good”. If only it were that simple. There are strict hierarchies that are extremely ethical and fair, and some loose hierarchies that are very devious and unscrupulous. It really comes down to how the teacher chooses to wield his/her authority and how juniors choose to operate inside of a given system (there are examples of ethical dojo heads who had to leave power in the hands of their subordinates, who then abused that power).
We often say in the martial arts that one should maintain a beginner’s mindset when learning, the goal of which is to avoid the ‘expert’s malaise’ that lulls people into a lack of growth. Another aspect of the beginner’s mind is to remember what it is like to be the low man on the totem pole. To recall the positive sensations when higher-ups took notice of your achievements and gave you valuable criticism, and the negative sensations of when you felt wronged and slighted.
As you become more and more powerful in the arts, it is critical to use that power wisely. Martial arts instructors are not gurus and they are not therapists; they are not financial counselors and they are not generals. But, when done properly, they can be a source of inspiration and a guiding light to help students achieve their goals and learn the techniques and traditions that have benefited practitioners for generations.
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This is a practical post for readers in various parts of their martial arts careers. One question that seems to come up a lot is “what kind of uniform should I get? What the heck is a 12 ounce gi??”
People often develop love/hate relationships with different brands of uniforms and different weights of uniforms. Depending on who you ask, and what your intentions are, the best gi for you might change. For beginners, it’s basically just a big mess of colored pajamas.
Let’s start off by examining some of the differences you might find in gi styles.
As you’ve probably already guessed, “gi” is the Japanese word for uniform. In tae kwon do they use the word “dobok”. But, in general, they are the same thing. All uniforms consist of two major parts, the jacket (uwagi) and the pants (zuban).
The jacket has two open flaps in the front that are cross tied – first the right flap to inside left, and the left flap to outside right. It’s important to note that karate and tae kwon do uniforms have these straps as jujutsu and judo uniforms do not. This is because judo and jujutsu feature a lot of grappling, pulling, and twisting, and the straps of a normal karate uniform would very quickly get yanked off.
Another difference you’ll notice is the way the pants are secured. The more “traditional” uniforms have drawstring ties where a strap is threaded through the top of the pants and is pulled tight and then tied together. Some of the newer style uniforms have elastic around the waist with a shoestring tie like normal workout pants. Generally speaking, neither style is particularly frowned upon, even in traditional dojo.
When it comes to karate, you’ll have two main colors to deal with: white and black. White is the most prominent and is acceptable in almost every dojo. Black is also widely used and has traditional roots too. Anything beyond those two basic styles is considered more modern and very dojo-specific. If you wish to join a dojo it’s important to note what rules and regulations they abide by.
Tae kwon do uniforms tend to be either plain or with a colored collar. Jujutsu and judo tend to use white or blue, with black as a lesser used color. Arts such as aikido and kenjutsu also utilize a hakama, which is the baggy pleated pants you might see Samurai sport in the movies.
Perhaps one of the trickiest things to do when shopping for a gi is decide what weight to get. The measuring system (which is ounces) is not readily understandable, and it takes tactile experience to know which weight you want. That being said, here are some tips for when you are deciding.
- 8 Ounce – 8 ounce uniforms are also called ‘student’ uniforms because they are inexpensive and easy for dojo owners to keep stocked. These are the lightest available and feel closest to natural cotton clothing. Wearing a martial arts uniform for the first time is a weird experience and you probably won’t feel too comfortable or natural. Even though these are light, they’ll feel clunky at first. 8 ouncers have other uses as well. Even experienced practitioners use 8 ounce when they need something light and airy for the summer, or if they are participating in a sweat-inducing gasshuku.
- 10 Ounce – 10 ounce is a great day-to-day weight. For people who feel as if they need a little more response and ‘feel’ from a uniform but still don’t want to feel stifled, 10 ounce is a good choice. As practitioners gain experience, they are expected to generate snap and pop from their gi. This came to pass as instructors started to use the snap as a barometer of kime, or martial arts focus.
- 12 Ounce – 12 ounce is a nice choice for people who need responsiveness in their gi. For individuals looking to compete in tournaments, especially in kata, this is fine way to go. When ironed and pressed properly, 12 ouncers look very sharp and proper. Many practitioners keep a 12 ounce around for official events or gatherings.
- 14 Ounce – 14 ounce is the heaviest available uniform (in general) and is considered the ‘heavyweight gi’. 14 ounce gis are the most responsive of all, but can also suffer from the cardboard effect if the material is not of high quality or washed properly. good heavyweight uniforms are often 100% cotton as this helps reduce stiffness. 14 ouncers have serious feel and character, and are great for official events. They also produce excellent snap in techniques.
The price of uniforms varies greatly. Lightweight gi are generally cheaper (and sometimes downright cheap). When you get into the heavier weights you can range in price from $80 to $300. The brand you choose will have a big effect on the price tag. The major differences in regards to brands is often how stiff they are and how well they lay on the body. You’ll also notice differences in the amount of stitching, and how quickly the gi wears out.
Final Thoughts on Gi Choice
When you are shopping around, one of the best things to do is find people that wear different brands. Ask them how they like the fit and material, and if you are feeling really froggy, ask them if you can try it on.
When it comes to getting a uniform that is right for you, tactile experience is the highest priority. Figure out what you’re looking for, do some brand research, and find the best match!
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