In the 2010 film The New Karate Kid, Jackie Chan takes on the spiritual role of Mr. Miyagi as he trains the young Jayden Smith in the martial arts. Mysterious, reserved, terse, in some ways even ascetic, and deliberately unhelpful, Jackie puts his student through a dogged and unrepentantly eccentric training regime. After a long period of lessons which involve Jayden doing nothing but taking off, dropping, hanging up, taking down, and putting back on his jacket, the young student is at the point of despair. Having taken up the study of Kung Fu in order to overcome his fears and protect himself from a gang of school bullies led by an especially belligerent martial artist (Zhenwei Wang), Jayden is looking for an art he can use in real combat, a fighting system that will teach him how to fight back against his enemies. Jayden makes to leave Jackie’s tutelage, disillusioned and frustrated, but Jackie stops him. In the sequence that follows, Jackie (in a somewhat contrived manner) demonstrates to Jayden how the movements he has been learning are actually the heart of his martial arts. He tells Jayden that “Kung Fu lives in everything we do; in how we put on a jacket, how we take off a jacket, and how we treat people”. It is no coincidence that earlier in his training, Jackie informs Jayden that “there’s something missing… Attitude”.
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It is common for one of our teaching staff at Exeter Aikido to remind students who are struggling or labouring hard with their technique that “you’re forgetting to smile”. I remember during my earlier days at the club furiously resisting the desire to smile whenever this happened. I had my pride and such a suggestion undermined my dignity and was embarrassing besides. Anyway, martial arts was serious business, to be treated with respect and imperious stiff-upper-lipped-ness at all times. To smile on the mat would practically be a disgrace to the very essence of martial arts. Around the mat I went, from partner to partner, stony eyed and resolute, refusing to learn Aikido every step of the way.
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In the Karate class I was part of in my younger days, we were informed every day we went to class that ‘spirit’ was the most important part of training. Indeed, the dojo kun of Karate emphasises this, ostensibly with every verse (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dojo_kun)! Most of the kids failed to understand really what this meant, and most of the adults were trying their best to regulate the (their own) kids. The essence of this particularity of our school, I fear, passed over more or less everyone’s heads. I, for one, was convinced that it meant bowing sharply, holding low and rigid stances, loud kiai, and exerting complete effort into every movement of every kata as if I were fighting my most hated enemies. I scowled my way through many a class believing this to be most ardent truth, secretly looking down on anyone who didn’t uphold these sacred standards of martial arts conduct.
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Mr. Peter Brown, headmaster of Kyushinkan Aikido dojo, is known in the UKA (United Kingdom Aikikai) for his particularly dynamic and powerful movements which he has inherited from the illustrious teaching heritage of the late masters Kazuo Chiba and Bill Smith. These days, he can be found preparing for his hip operation by training with such esteemed teachers as Christian Tissier of France and Toshiharu Sawada of Nagoya (and I wish him the best of luck with the op!). I recall once he told a story while teaching uchi-kaiten-nage. He said that during a class with Chiba long ago, Chiba had stopped the class to point out a mistake his students were making. He said words to the effect of: “don’t take tiny mincing steps like you’re geisha! Aikido is a martial art, complete your movements in a single stride!”. Sensei Brown to this day opens uchi-kaiten-nage with a single, rapid, spiralling turn which has enormous torque and a deep long entrance (which is very difficult to take sincere non-preemptive ukemi for, I’ll add!). Like Jackie Chan, Sensei Brown sometimes also tells his students that what they are missing is Attitude, though not in such uncertain and damning terms as his late master Chiba…
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In contemporary martial arts schools which teach mixed styles of martial arts, self defence classes and fitness and function just as much as gyms as dojo, it is common to see posters and banners bearing training mantra and slogans lining the walls and ceilings. I have known students of such schools to push themselves exceptionally hard and as a result become extraordinarily physically fit and intimidating as well as technically skilled. I have also known such practitioners to have uncommon dedication and commitment to their schools, the long hours single mindedly sweating and drilling and grinding forging a viciously strong bond between the student and their parent organisation. Here is a striking example of how attitude has a vast transformative power to the martial artist (and to anyone else for that matter, but we’ll stick to martial artists here). Particularly in this type of martial arts school (and I am making sweeping generalisations here which are by no means absolutely true and should not be taken as such) students don’t start out as the hardcore aficionados or the idealists seeking a legendary master who may be more common in “traditional” martial arts schools or schools which teach a single style. Students here tend to be the type who had only a passing (sometimes literally, “I was passing by”) interest in martial arts itself and became dedicated later.This is due entirely to the depth of the spirit that such schools as these are able to foster. By not being invested in a single martial art or beholden to the trappings and traditions of an older ‘classical’ system, such schools are able to attract a wide audience and give them a relatively recognisable ground from which to start their training. The ‘blood, sweat and tears’ ethos which resembles the regimes of sportspeople, professional trainers and even relatively casual gym-goers works well here to transform the layperson into a capable martial artist through the sheer diligence and grit of hard work. That’s the actualisation of spirit; straightforward, direct, what could be simpler? It really is a matter of ‘those who believe shall receive’.
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There is another thing that our aforementioned Exeter teacher who advises us to smile does: he poses. What I mean by this is that he will go to great lengths (sometimes purposefully exaggerating to the point of slightly absurd) to emphasize the posture your body should take during a technique and he will happily demonstrate these postures repeatedly for you should you so request it. Throughout this process, he will also crack jokes, make puns, and smile, chuckle, and on the whole be extremely expressive. Despite (or perhaps because of) this seemingly lighthearted and relaxed approach, his Aikido is precise and keen and his posture is exceedingly stable yet fluid and flexible. On (eventually) learning to loosen up in class, I found that my body did just that; it loosened up. My shoulders stopped aching, my stance became less wooden and stick-in-the-mud clumsy, and I started feeling my own centre, as if all the knotted fury in my muscles from before had prevented me from actually connecting my limbs together through my centre of gravity. Approaching training openly lets my body be open, which is the very technical and philosophical point of Aikido. Smiling and enjoying training lets my body relax, which, as anyone in Aikido knows, is a touchstone to learning Aikido at all. Being free and expressive makes our aforementioned teacher’s Aikido equally free and expressive. Attitude is the form you take. Very directly, the emotional load you bring transforms into the movements you make. Style is substantial, intention begets actualisation. Just as any seasoned sportsperson will tell you that confidence can make or break a match and that the elusive groove of “good form” will come and go as unpredictably as your own mood, so it is here that the very thing that makes a martial artist’s work ‘art’ at all is the style with which they perform it. It is common for schools of martial arts to tell students that ‘martial arts is not about being stylish, it’s about technique’ and they are right in the sense that a Bruce Lee flying kick to the head looks great on screen but isn’t exactly what we should be training all the time. However, style and the aesthetics of martial arts isn’t something that can be discarded so easily; ‘being stylish’ isn’t secondary to technique – it is technique.
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There is an (in)famous demonstration (which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqOlHLp0TcA) in the Yoshinkan school of Aikido. The story behind it goes (and I have not been able to verify this, but such as my sources are, I believe it is largely reliable with some embellishment) that during the 2008 All Japan Yoshinkan demo, the new head of house set his demonstration to music. Whether he believed that this was a better way to encourage interest in the art for new students or a better marketing ploy for the sponsors attending the event is unknown. What is believed is that Takeno-sensei, who had been very close to the former head of Yoshinkan, the late Gozo Shioda, did not like this. Feeling that this particular style of demonstration was a disservice to the martiality of Yoshinkan Aikido and displayed a weak, populist, and undignified attitude towards the art in general, he proceeded to a roughly 3 minute demonstration in which he repeatedly smashed his uke into the ground on the back of their heads and necks. The uke were (thankfully) very skilled and sincere and as such, able to take the punishment without any serious injuries. There are obvious occasions, nonetheless where they appear visibly and quite badly hurt. Their ukemi becomes rapidly slow and wooden within just two or three techniques, you can see their knees shaking and them panting for breath and struggling to return to their feet. I expect Takeno was unrepentant about this; not because he doesn’t care for his uke, but because what he wished to communicate about Yoshinkan Aikido was absolutely clear from this demonstration. With unwavering conviction he made his intent known. There was no need to voice his disapproval of the new head’s demo, it was completely evident from the precise and pitiless fury etched into Takeno’s form that day what he thought of setting Aikido to music.
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In an old Aikido Journal issue there is an article by William Gleason (now 7th dan) on his time training with the late great Seigo Yamaguchi-sensei. In this article he describes how, ‘Sometimes he [Yamaguchi] would throw Takeda Sensei very hard and then walk away as if to say, ” No big deal after all.” This was difficult to accept for someone who was already known as a high level teacher, yet later Takeda Sensei would say, “Yamaguchi Sensei is a man of great spiritual fortitude.”’
(Full article here: http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2012/05/16/my-experience-with-seigo-yamaguchi-sensei-by-william-gleason/).
I cannot pretend to be anywhere near as accomplished as Takeda-sensei, but I am familiar with the stinging pain and humbling feeling of being thrown hard out of my own technique. I do most certainly feel like ‘no big deal’.
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The late Kazuo Chiba-sensei is often talked about in tones of fear and awe. Indeed, the picture that Peter Brown-sensei paints of Chiba is a man of iron-hard commitment and resolve, utterly devoted to the cultivation of Aikido. The book The Swordmaster’s Apprentice by Edward Burke details further how studying with Chiba meant being prepared to take ukemi which involved regularly being punched in the face for mistakes, having your hands and wrists and forearms continually stinging from bokken and jo strikes, and living in an atmosphere of constant alertness to Chiba’s irascible temperament. Burke tells how, through forging in such a hot fire, he felt his body develop not only an entirely new style of Aikido, but also his alertness, emotional sensitivity and philosophical outlook change. Indeed, the subtitle to the book (‘Or how a Broken Nose, a Shaman, and a Little Light Dusting May Point the Way to Enlightenment’) suggests that Burke felt that the extremes of his uchi-deshi (in-house-student) experience, under the constant pressure of examination by Chiba, led him to significant lifestyle changes. His astonishment and perhaps even wonder is obvious then, when he records Chiba later in the book saying ‘I am not usually angry, I just pretend to be’.
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Seishiro Endo-sensei, when asked about his Aikido and freedom, said words to the effect of: ‘There is no freedom just like that. When we think of freedom usually as “being free of” something, but that is not freedom at all. Only within form, within working through, testing and refining ourselves and eventually, after a long time, mastering form, only then do we become free:- that is keiko (training)’. In this way, all martial arts is self expression. What I mean by this is that the idea of mastering the form is not subservience to it and simple meticulous operation of it. To begin with, a rich and deep understanding of the form does not mean a robotic recitation of prescribed movements, it means a fusion of the form and your own body. When Endo says mastering form he doesn’t mean becoming encyclopaedic; he means becoming creative, that is: having the technical ability to string the units of basic forms together to create art. Like a musician, performance is more than simply knowing how to play the instrument. Like a chess player, the game isn’t about know how each piece moves. Like a poet, beautiful writing isn’t to do with knowing just what words mean and how a sonnet’s rhyming structure exists. All these art forms are creative because the artist is expressing themselves through the form, but only having mastered the form can such expression occur. This is why I have said that Attitude is your form, that style, intention and ‘spirit’ are indeed the really real heart of martial arts. Even the most basic novice can tell that training angrily makes their movements different to training happily or sadly or apathetically, lazily, or intensely or flamboyantly. Though they may interpret this as emotion ‘getting in the way’ of technique, it really is the case that the technique is simply expressing the artist’s feeling – just not in the way she wants it to. This is why masters like Chiba, Yamaguchi, and Takeno have all been known to have vicious and terrifying moments where their Aikido expresses an awesomely sharp anger, yet at the same time have also known to be extraordinarily genial and pleasant, both on and off the mat. Particularly Yamaguchi’s Aikido was revered as wonderfully light to the touch and subtle, a trait inherited by Endo, who perhaps epitomises the idea of feeling-as-form and form-as-freedom. What is Endo’s Aikido without the mild and almost self-deprecating smile he cracks now and then? What is, for example, Christian Tissier’s Aikido without the neat and crisp panache with which he delivers his teaching? Gozo Shioda was known to devastate uke as badly as Takeno but with a rough and rogueish grin. Even the humourless downturned corners of Steven Seagal’s beard are reflective of his martial arts. As Jackie Chan rightly puts it, Martial Arts does live in everything we do, but the reverse is equal too:- everything else we do also makes our martial arts. Attitude is not simply the idea that you come to training honest, sincere, focused, and committed, it is the very thing that changes martial arts from the dogged recitation of movements to something creative and artistic at all. Without form, there is no freedom, without style, there is no substance.
This one has been rather long, but also has been brewing for some time. I hope I have not made it difficult for my readers in this instance! Thankyou very much for reading and all feedback is welcome.
My thanks to: Exeter Aikido,
Exeter University Jujutsu