The Ai-kitchen

An Aikido blog. There could also be food. Maybe.

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Tripple A

No, despite the recent excitement about the Brexit referendum, I’m not talking about the UK’s former credit rating.

In general I’m not the biggest fan of multi letter lists. There were way to many of them when I was studying business. I don’t find them terribly useful as models for myself, neither for business nor for self defence. However, that is not universal. For some people they are a godsend, a great way to organise information (and if you are one of them, Eric Kondo has some of the best ones, so check them out). Personally I mostly get value from them by looking at how the creator decided to organise the information and trying to figure out the patterns. Also trying to see what is “in the gaps” – what the model doesn’t cover and, if I can figure it out – why?

Having said all that, I do have one I like. I don’t use it in the classes, it’s mostly the result of trying to come up with a quick and dirty way of presenting mindset principles for seminars, since i might have a few of those coming up in the not too far future. So, here it is, the Tripple A model for self defence:

AWARENESS: Something that a lot of places give lip service too and that’s elevated to near mystical levels. It’s important. Without it everything else becomes harder. And it must be specifically trained. It also contains a number of things. Awareness of the present. Awareness of the environment, both in the moment and in terms of environmental knowledge. You can’t recognise abnormal unless you know what is normal (credit to Marc MacYoung for that one).

In SD, awareness lets you spot trouble so you can avoid it. If you can’t avoid it, it lets you see it coming and prepare. Awareness of what is actually going on in a given situation lets you select and appropriate response. Social or asocial? Actually dangerous or merely annoying? Do I have time to gather information or not? Can I leave? Can I de-escalate? In the place that I am now, and given who I am, what actions can I safely take to resolve this? If I have to use force, what level?

Awareness is one of the key components. However, on it’s own it is rather useless. It is beneficial only when it is paired with the second A, which is (cue dramatic drum roll):

ACTION: We must act. Awareness will inform our actions, but then we must take them. And to be clear, leaving is an action. Not going somewhere dangerous is an action. Hitting someone in the throat is an action. Changing the side of the street is an action. One of the big, common mistakes is not taking an action because of denial. “I’m sure it’s nothing” is probably up there with “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be careful” and “Hold my beer” for things people say before it all goes wrong. And the action needs to be appropriate. Not necessarily extreme. In a lot of situations, we can make relatively minor adjustments that have no or very low social costs but will massively increase our safety. Permission is a key component here. We must give ourselves permission to act. We have, all of us, a moral and (in our society) social/legal permission to act to protect ourselves. There are constrains to those actions. Know them, and know when they might have to be thrown out. Appropriate, decisive action works a lot of the time. Run. Fight. Apologise. Sincerely and decisively.

We do need to keep in mind that there are no magic bullets. There is no “just do this”. Most of the time when I see “10 self defence tips anyone can use anytime, ever” lists I throw up in my mouth a little bit. (Not universal, some are very good stuff by very good people). Nothing works every time And that brings me to the third A (cue dramatic drum roll again):

ADAPTABILITY: We must be able to adjust our actions. One trick ponies run into huge problems when the context changes. Physically this can be the police officer/martial artist who tries over and over to do the one wristlock he got good at in training, while he’s taking damage and it’s clearly not working. It can be the person who tries to solve every confrontation by getting loud and angry/meek and fearful. The sports/traditional fighter who can’t adjust tactics to a weapon being in play.

We need to check for effect, and see if what we are doing is working. Some degree of this happens in training. And some for real. We need to be careful, one of the most common mistakes is hitting people half strength and checking if it makes things worse (if we hit half strength, it probably will). So I don’t mean take half-arsed actions so you can be indecisive. I mean take decisive actions, then adjust for effect. Am I on a good social script? Is my physical response working? If not, I adjust.

Sometimes we only need one or two of the above. I see the potential set-up for a mugging (awareness), I turn around and leave (action). If no one follows me, I am done. I get ambushed, my counter assault training kicks in (action) and it works. I am done. Or it doesn’t and I adjust (adaptability).

We do want all three though, if we can. Layers of defence and all that.


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Good things

There are many scary things in the world. And many, many people who grab our attention, our endorsement, our time and our money by highlighting them. Politicians, media, salespeople and yes, self-defence instructors. Fear based advertising is very common, in the self defence industry as well as in the media in general. There are reasons for this, we are wired to respond more strongly to fear & danger than almost anything else. It isn’t all malicious either, a lot of people – especially in the martial arts and self defence industry, and in charities – genuinely feel that they are helping you see dangers you might be unaware of, or “spreading awareness” of social issues they may feel strongly about. And to an extent they may be right, many of us live very sheltered lives, and may be unaware of the dangers around us. But, on the whole, our world is actually pretty safe and pretty cool.

Awareness should not lead to paranoia. Awareness does not mean just being aware of the bad stuff, of dangers, problems and difficulties. It means also being aware of the good, the interesting and the amazing. Marvelling at all the cool stuff we get to experience, and not taking it all for granted. And yes, acknowledging that there are dangers, there are problems, but they don’t make up the whole of existence.

I don’t like flying very much. On a deep level it makes me uncomfortable. And there is one thing that takes the discomfort away to large degree: Simple amazement at what flying actually means. Last week I attended a seminar on the other side of the earth. It took me a day to get there. That is amazing. On Tuesday I saw the sun rise above the clouds. Something that for most of human history none of my ancestors would have been able to experience. And it wasn’t the first time I saw it, and that makes it no less awesome. On the same flight, as we were landing I could look down on the mediterranean sea, an incredible shade of blue and the water so clear I could see the bottom.

I am less that 30 years old, and there are only two continents I have not been to in my life (Antarctica and South America). I met people last week that live half a world away, from vastly different backgrounds and through the internet I can communicate with them easily, within a few seconds. I can access, through the laptop I am typing this on, or through my phone, or a range of other devices, more knowledge than anyone a few decades ago could possibly have been exposed to. Sure, I can also access vast amounts of crud, BS, assholery, cat pictures and other irrelevances, but if I was to pay attention, there is so much good stuff out there. Also last week, I tried food from three new countries, all in the same, different country. There should be more Ethiopian restaurants, that stuff is seriously good!

I can wake up, walk a few steps, turn a tap and have running water coming out, in a climate that is pretty close to desert-like. Not drinking water mind you, but still (for that I have to go a few steps further and push a button on the water filter on the fridge). There is an infrastructure that prevents the vast majority of violence and can prevent or heal the vast majority of diseases and injuries.

To stop with the list, our parts of the world are good. Though the word has been incredibly abused in the name of political agenda, we are very privileged. And we can acknowledge that, take the good, thank our ancestors (because no, that did not happen by itself, someone worked for it) and the people still working to make the world better. And we can ourselves work to make our little corner of the world a little better.

At the same time we can acknowledge that this does not mean that there are no problems, that it’s the same everywhere, or that we could not be the victims of violence, disease or other threats. The amazing things above that I can do? I’m not the one making them work. They are based on an intricate infrastructure to function, and if that breaks down they all go away. We can recognise that without getting paranoid.

We train to deal with them as much as we are able, without lowering our quality of life now. We educate ourselves so we can help the system to function. We take social actions to address social problems. We are nice to people, making our offices, families or communities a little more pleasant. We train self-defence to prevent violence. We keep ourselves healthy to prevent disease We have contingency plans in the case of disaster. Not for some fantasy doomsday scenario, but because shit happens. And then we turn around and enjoy the amazing lives we have been given, instead of overfocusing on whatever problem of the week someone, whose career or self-esteem depends on it, is trying to sell us on. Let them fearmonger, whine and grumble. I’ll just get on and live meanwhile thank you very much!

PS: Also there is irony in the world. The evening after I wrote this the local water supply shut down for two days. Go figure 😛

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Some Thoughts on Time Frame

Back from another seminar, and hanging out with Rory and Anna. Good times, great conversations over coffee and whisky. So many light bulbs went off in my head I was afraid my brain might short out. Got to experience proper snowfall the first (and only, since I’m back in the Mediterranean) time this winter.

The seminar was fun, I was part of the organisers this time so was involved in deciding the topics. Also got to see some contrast in organisational ability between different groups, since we technically had five different events over the course of the week, with noticeable differences. This feeds into some thoughts I have had on our education systems and work ethic/ability, but more on that another time.

One of the days was a general six hour self defence course, and during the day one thing was highlighted: The difference in learning ability and time when people are enabled (and let themselves) play.

I got a question on time frame the other day. Someone asked me how long it would take them to see results if they started training. We talked about it a bit but it’s actually a difficult question to answer. In this case they told me what they are currently doing, their state of fitness and level of interest. And I know what my classes are like. When it’s a general question, it’s harder.

What is the time frame for learning martial arts? I’m not actually asking, it’s a silly question. First we’d have to define what we mean by martial arts exactly, they all contain different skill sets. Do you include violence dynamics? Classical weapons? Knowledge of history? Acrobatics? Physical fitness? Music (e.g. in Capoeira)? Philosophy? Physical skills only? Which ones? Do you need to be able to fight? In what conditions? In a competition? What level and rule set?

Then we need to work out how it is assessed, gradings have a wide spectrum, from technical demonstrations (or on-line certifications) all the way to gruelling multi-hour ordeals and even some patently insane stuff. Many include minimum practice times between them, regardless of ability.

And how do we judge practice? How many hours/days/years? Under what conditions? Do we base it on history (iffy, records in martial arts tend to be crappy)? If so, from when? 15th century Japan? Post-war Okinawa? Are those still applicable today?

Note that I’m not trying to answer any of the above questions, but they are things we need to consider.

Based on their individual style, school and practice and considering these factors, no two people will come up with the same answer. Mine will be different from yours. I have different answers for different things. If I disagree with someone else’s answer, I will try to at least ensure we are asking the same questions. Full transmission of a historical style is a different thing from basic physical competence. “Mastery”, if such a thing exists, of the intricate mechanics of a style is different than basic self defence ability, is different from the ability to fight in a cage. Teaching ability is different again, so is the ability to apply the lessons in your daily life and interactions.

I’ve been grappling with these thoughts for a while. There are various schools of thought on whether or not there are short-cuts within the martial arts that can be used to accelerate the process. Personally I’m ambivalent on the subject. There are no short-cuts that take out the need to work hard. But there are certainly instructional and practice methods that are a lot faster than others. It is like that in almost every area of life, why should martial arts be different? And if you just got a little internal glitch when reading this, that’s probably something you should think about in some detail.

I bring this up now because at the seminar in St. Andrews I saw two people with no training background in 6 hours get to the level where we could have taken them to most martial arts schools, told people they were advanced practitioners, and it would have been believable. They could have wiped the floor with many so called martial artists. How is this possible? A couple of things. I’m not entirely sure about the mechanism, but there are a few noticable factors. These are my best guess, so take them with a grain of salt.

Motivation. The people who did well really wanted to be there. Wanted to know the information, wanted to get better not look better (this is an important difference). In the middle of the course was the theory portion, and explanation of the seven factors of self defence training (See “Facing Violence” for details). The people who got really good showed noticeable interest, and a very noticeable improvement in physical performance after the talk. Other people went the other way, information overload or getting scared maybe? Not sure, but either way, it was a factor.

Principles & play based teaching is another big one. Getting your body to move in the exact specific way to perform exact specific techniques just right takes time. Then learning to apply the lessons from those techniques to be able to improvise takes more time. Good principles based teaching avoids this issue. Let people explore the principles, let them play, and they get really good really fast. The downside is that it’s very hard to measure so it makes grading and assessment hard. Also difficult if you need to pass a style down just-so, because the expressions of the principles will be slightly different for everybody. Not an issue in seminars like this or for self defence really, unless egos get involved.

“Play” is actually another huge one. It’s how we naturally learn and improve, and it’s fun. I’m not sure when we as a species had the bright idea that play and learning should be two separate things, but it wasn’t our finest moment. When we separate them we get it in our head that f you’re having fun and exploring, you’re not “really learning”. And if you’re really trying to learn something, you are not supposed to play and have fun. It’s idiotic, to put it mildly, and the effects of reversing it are spectacular.

So, if you’re reading this, think about the time frames you have in your head. What are they assumed to refer to? What do they actually refer to? Do those two match or not? You might find that there is a disconnect. It could go either way, you might think that long time frame was ridiculous, until you actually look at what is expected to be learned and realise it’s appropriate. Or you might realise that the thing you actually want to learn could take way less time than you thought, because the assumptions don’t reflect your actual needs.

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Permission: Denied!

Anna Valdiserri wrote a really good blogpost – this happens a lot. If you don’t read her blog, you should start – which you can read here: .. Read this first, I’ll wait. Ok, you read it? Cool, now here’s my take:

(Note: this was initially a calm examination of the issues. It turns into a profanity filled rant near the end. Oops.)

The issue is self-defence instructors refusing to teach people who come to them with an immediate, tangible threat hanging over them, for a number of “reasons” (I use the term loosely, they’re rationalisations). I want to look at a few of the issues surrounding this, and one big huge problem they miss: that of permission.

First off instructor refusing to teach someone who has an actual, immediate problem is not a good thing, generally speaking. There may be exceptions. There are a whole lot of martial arts instructors I’ve come across who advertise teaching self-defence who I pray to god never have someone with an actual problem walk into their class. And if they do, they are probably doing the person a favour by not teaching them.

Similarly, martial arts instructors who do not actually teach self-defence might legitimately say that what they do may not be appropriate for that person. Note that there is a big difference between this and saying “I won’t teach you”. They might also give the person an overview of what they do and do not cover, as well as the nature and time frame of the training, and let them decide for themselves. This I consider fair enough, provided the instructor does not at the same time claim to be teaching self-defence. In addition, if the instructor is good, they might still have some helpful advice, or even better the contact details of someone actually willing and able to help this person. The general reluctance of people in the martial arts world to refer potential students to others better able to meet their needs is a whole different rant for another time.

Ok, but Anna mentions a forum for self-defence instructors specifically, so the people there should not be in the above category in any case. What about the “reason” that the person should not be looking for self-defence training but instead doing “the right thing” to reduce their risks? Well, superficially this Is correct, but there are a few problems with the logic. First of all, as Anna said the person may already be doing all of that, but it might not be enough. Secondly, depending on their background, the person may not know what risk reduction strategies to take. And seriously, are you claiming to teach self-defence and NOT teaching these things? In that case maybe your should take of your cammo pants, or at least change your advertising to “costume party for wanabe badasses” instead. This is no reason whatsoever. At the very fucking least you should be able to have a serious conversation with the person explaining what you actually teach and asking what other measures they have taken. We might also have a list of resources for students to get more information on such things, organisations to contact etc..

Now there is one actual problem with teaching someone with an immediate need, related to the progression in self-defence. Normally you start out doing emotionally non threatening things, and then progress to more challenging mental/emotional issues, since self-defence is largely an emotional skill. Thing is, that takes time. If someone has an immediate problem, you may have to shorten (NOT ignore) that process, which depending on their personality may put them off. However, one would hope that the need to actually solve the problem would override this a little bit. Ultimately there is a trade off, and harsh as it sounds, if someone is looking to be coddled or to “feel empowered”, a gentle reality check though a considerate conversation may be needed. And if you immediately though this relates only to women, wrong. There are plenty of guys who go to classes to feel empowered, we just use different words and are much less likely to admit it.

In my opinion biggest single issue with refusing to teach someone with an immediate need, and ultimately the reason why I consider it damaging, is different than all of the above. It is the issue of permission Permission is one of the big factors in self-defence. A very large chunk of actions we need to take to successfully protect ourselves, physical or otherwise, are things we have been told or conditioned not to do (or that we can’t possibly do) at some point. Don’t be rude. Don’t hit people. Don’t injure your partner. Don’t make a scene. Good girls don’t do that. Real men don’t walk away. It’s not your place to make those decisions for yourself. You can’t walk out of your tribe/family/friends/church/cult. You couldn’t possibly hurt someone bigger and stronger. Don’t get the police involved in personal matters. And so on. The extent depends on our specific background and experiences. Many times what people need is to give themselves permission to act. One of the most helpful things in a good class is having and environment where the other people present encourage us in this. Especially initially it can also be very very helpful to have the authority figure (aka. the instructor) help us with this. And now this person, who has a serious problem, walks into our class. Where we, as instructors, have the mantle of authority. And they have decided to take action. Maybe other actions as well, we don’t know yet. But one for certain, they made the choice to seek training. To go to a strange place with violent people and learn to protect themselves. And the first thing they get told? “No, you can’t, you don’t have permission”. By said authority figure… How messed up is that?

No, no you poor delicate creature, you can’t make this decision for yourself, you just go away so I can go back to teaching fit young martial athletes who will never ever need my training and feel good about myself. And then I can go on the internet and complain about all the stupid sheep who are in actual victim profiles and are too stupid to seek training.

No, seriously, if you do this, FUCK YOU! If you claim to teach fucking self-defence, step the fuck up. Or refer them to someone who can help at the very fucking least. Yes, if someone like that walked into my class, it would make me uncomfortable. Big fucking whoop. I would still do my job, to the best extent of my ability. If I thought for a second I wouldn’t, I should really stop teaching this stuff. Aaargh! Rant over now.

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Force & (dys-)function

Back home from the biggest seminar trip yet. Annual intensive course in Scotland for over a week, then the 4 day Violence Dynamics clinic in Minnesota. Jetlag has firmly sunk its jaws in me with a few days delay, which is making this weekend far less restful than it should be. I will be processing stuff from both seminars for a while. Minnesota especially was extraordinary, and though I’d originally planned to go this year only, I may just have to throw out that plan and go again in 2016.

There are many ideas and thoughts triggered by the seminar in my head. When it’s calmed down a bit I will post a review. For now I’ll stick to writing to process some individual ideas. This one came about by the combination of a great session on principles based movement with the folks at Querencia Fitness and the power generation classes with Marc MacYoung & Dillon Beyer.

There is a saying in fitness circles which goes: “Do not add force to dysfunction”. The basic meaning is usually that if you do not have good movement patterns for an exercise, you should not add extra weight or make it more strenuous, so as not to injure yourself or worsen the cumulative effect of bad movement. It occurred to me on the trip back that this is quite applicable to the martial arts in several ways.

During the overt power generation class, one of the mechanics involved letting the body “snap” back to a good structure from a compressed one. If done right it generates a lot of power and feels effortless. If done wrong we end up pushing from a sub-optimal position, e.g. generating force in dysfunction. Might still work with a sufficient size/strength advantage, but not really what we want. So the first way to apply this is to ourselves. Generating force through functional structures is one of the most fundamental things any martial style should be able to do. Now there are many different ways to generate functional structures, but they do tend to converge to similar principles, no matter the style.

What is important is that the expression of those principles within the style is well integrated. The actual power generation mechanics, the functional (hopefully) structure used to transmit them and the tactics these things are used for must be congruent. If they are not we have a problem. This is evident in some of the “we take the best techniques from a number of styles” schools, where you can often see fundamental problems in the way people move when the different parts don’t line up.

The other issue you can get is blind spots to specific dysfunctions, and the compensations they necessitate. By definition hitting nothing but air with proper power generation leaves nowhere for the power to go, and thereby creates a dysfunctional and eventually damaging, “structure”. Many of the “traditional” warm-ups put loads on vulnerable tissues that they were not meant to handle, especially today where often only a minority of practitioners work physically demanding jobs and have the corresponding physique. There are other examples, and sometimes the trade-off is intentional. There are very effective power generations that over time will wreck your joints. When these arts came into existence, effectiveness was more important than long term health. For us recreational civilian practitioners nowadays that is not really the case.

So much for the bad, but when this is done well the effects can be spectacular. We can generate enormous power with seemingly little effort – in execution; the effort in learning how to do it is considerable. We can do this and maintain our health, because the transmission through functional structures does not wreck us as it otherwise might. It’s a win-win. More effective power delivered in a way less damaging to us. More damaging to the threat of course, which brings me to the next way this statement can apply to martial arts/self-defence.

The other side of the coin is what we are trying to do to the threat, which is the opposite. We are trying to apply as much power as we can through his dysfunctional structure. Especially if we practice an art which manipulates the threat’s structure directly. Which to be fair, most of them do to some degree, or at least did originally. So for structuring and locking arts (for example, oh I don’t know, Aikido?!?) this should be fairly self-evident.

We either break balance – creating a dysfunctional structure – and apply force through our functional structure to execute a take-down. Or we lock/twist the threat up – creating a dysfunctional structure – and apply force through our functional structure to potentially devastating effect. Either of these can be done to variable degrees and force levels, and through different mechanisms. Strikes or grappling both work with different effects, and choosing what to do depends on our goals and justified levels of force.

Hitting into good structure can also be very effective, as it is less likely to move the threat but more likely to do damage if the level of force is more than the structure can take. If it is less, it gets absorbed and does nothing.

There is also a degree of just how dysfunctional we make the threat’s structure. Most sports grappling styles excel at manipulating the opponent’s body to deny him the ability to apply his own power to resist what is being done to him. Effectively this is robbing him of the ability to create a truly functional structure, rather than creating serious dysfunction. The reason of course being that the goal in sports is to limit the number of injuries while allowing high intensity contests to take place. On the flip side, a lot of the non-sporting styles are quite good at creating truly messed up structures for the threat, but we tend to be less good at dealing with his ability to compensate and resist, since we practice that less. Again, this is a trade-off. It is possible to do both, but that is quite hard to practice safely. Which brings me to the next point: Ukemi.

Ukemi is, in essence, as way to compensate and receive force through a functional structure, in the sense that nothing is supposed to get damaged. This can mean different things depending on the nature of the training and the incoming forces. In Aikido a large part of it involves positioning ourselves so that we can move to disperse the forces acting on us, often through rolling or flipping. Another component is break falls, hitting the ground in a way that enables our body to absorb the impact safely, or disperse it (e.g. “feather falls”). It may also, depending on the style, include effective ways of resisting or countering techniques. It is generally fairly specific. Judo ukemi is not ideal for some Aikido techniques (namely most of the joint locks) and vice versa. Any contact striking style will teach students how to take a punch, which does not translate well into how to respond to joint locks. The soft compliant Ukemi generally seen in Aikido would be stupid to use in wrestling match. When we use the wrong type of ukemi injury can easily occur, and this is why we need to be extra careful when a) practicing with people from different backgrounds or b) practicing unfamiliar drills.

In summary, force and function are at the core of a lot of what we do in martial arts. The goal is for us to use the most functional structures we can, and to get our opponents into the most dysfunctional structures possible, while applying force.

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Autumn Braindump

This is a brain-dump of things I wanted to write about for a while and some new stuff. In brief paragraphs:

Summer break finished (2 months ago…) and classes are back on. Going well too, an advanced sparring drill (infighting) I thought people would be ready for by next spring, we managed to introduce with great success in September. My students continue to impress me.

Had a seminar with two visiting instructors, Olivier Lefebre from Belgium and Fabian Horn from Germany ( . If you get the chance, practice with them. Both good teachers, and Fabian especially is one of the best technical aikidoka I have have had the pleasure of training with. Plus got to play and do infighting with them. Everybody who was there including myself made good progress, especially on ukemi.

Before that had another public class, this one on Aikido. Turns out it’s harder for me to do in that format than self defense. But still managed and went well, many of the attendees are now regular students. The class is still small, but pushing the limits of what our current room can safely accommodate. Might have to look at some alternatives at this rate.

The public self defense classes gave me an idea for presenting that material in a different way. Fair bit of work forthcoming before that becomes actionable, but could be very useful for some people.

Am currently abroad, back in Scotland attending the yearly seminar at my old dojo. The usual teacher, the ever awesome Anita Bonnivert (82 years old, tiny, and a 6th Dan) is back this year, thankfully. Some students came with me this time to get some exposure to more classical Aikido and larger seminars, which I am very pleased about.

Personally I am again learning a lot, unfortunately for me (or rather my ego) that includes some not so minor flaws in my Aikido that I really need to deal with. It’s useful but deeply frustrating at times. I’ve gotten somewhat used to a different teaching style, some internal adjustment is necessary.

Also had an unfortunate accident. I was trying to train up ukes for my students approaching grading, which was going to include infighting. Based on previous success I did it too quickly, and one of my friends got injured. Not as bad as it could have been but bad enough, and but for luck could have been much worse. I need to be more careful and use more progressions to get to the full drill.

I am also possibly grading, something I have not done in 5 years. Spent the last few months training for it, mostly working on footwork and visualization, now trying to get the final polish at the seminar. Will see how things go on Saturday. Not entirely sure I am ready, have to trust my teachers to make that decision though.

My body is not quite working as it should, the old knee injury is acting up and this year is less restful than before, so recovery from the sessions is not as thorough. Less sleep, and trying to organize a multi-part seminar in January as well as taking care of some other business while here. Many meetings, lots of walking. Great fun though.

I’m seeing old friends, eating good food (in taste if not nutrition) and remembering why I love the fresh air in Scotland. I am writing this in a cafe in Edinburgh. Forgot how much I love the view or this city in general. Rest day from training today, has been 3-4h every day this week. The daily training is tiring but the constant exposure improves technique like few other things can.

Few days to go, then quiet rest day with the fiance, and then off to Minnesota for the violence dynamics seminar ( . I’ve been wanting to go to this particular course for the last few years, and now finally have no exams or work deadlines getting in the way. Looks like it will be fantastic, but I do need to do some expectation management I think. The course is shorter than previous years, and I’ve covered a fair bit of the content at previous seminars, in some cases more than once. Don’t want to get too caught up in anticipation (ok, I still am, but I’ll try not to make unmanly squeaking noises of excitement). Will be interesting to switch gears from a week on intense classical Aikido to a few intense days of SD focused training.

Brain-dump end.

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Short SD

This summer I ended up being asked to teach some public self defence classes for the first time. It was part of an event by organised by the local municipality including various activities in one of the city parks. There’s a variety of classes on throughout most of the summer (not August, nobody does anything here in August except leave or complain about the heat).

It was an interesting experience, and required a fair bit of planning. While I teach self defence in the regular classes, this was different. In the regular classes the assumption is the students will be there for a while. We do try to make a point to include immediately usable concepts if a new student shows up in a class, so that if they only do that one class they still learned something useful. But it’s still not the same. The regular classes include a fair bit of traditional practice, a lot of progressively working on body mechanics and movement principles and drills that build up over a number of classes. For the public seminars I had about 2 hours, and I assumed that was going to be the only training most attendees would get.

Therefore it was imperative to take a problem focused approach. Of course it would have been easy to just pick a couple of my favourite classical techniques, throw in some hand-wavy mention of awareness and questionable explanation of applications, toss the words “on the street” in a few times and be done with it. And there are plenty of martial artists who would do that, either for not caring or with good intentions but not knowing any better. But that’s largely horse shit.

The biggest gains someone can get in a short time like that are not on physical techniques. We did some physical drills, stuff that ingrains quickly (e.g. counter assault training) and some drills to lock in the theoretical concepts better. But the far more important content in this sort of set-up is the background, actually making people aware of how bad stuff happens, and what they can do about it without trying to become a Tactical Commando Ninja Warrior.

At this point I should mention that since I’m not arrogant enough to assume I have all the answers I asked a few people I know who have experience about their recommendations and incorporated them in the planning.

The first thing was establishing a definition of what we consider self defence to be. Explaining that it’ not necessarily using violence, it’s dealing with other people wanting to use violence on us. There are a variety of tools we can use for this purpose, and for most people violence is the one they’re worst at (because it’s not something they do or practice), where as talking to people for example is something most of us do every day. Discussed where the place of violence is in this spectrum and that it’s sometimes necessary, but usually more effective not to let things escalate to that point.

Stuff we covered included amongst others things like boundary setting, how awareness and environmental knowledge work together, the differences between fighting and assault, how bad guys pick victims and who gets targeted for what. Physical drills were interspersed throughout, focusing on principles. Examples include demonstrating some of our social conditioning blocks by having strangers grab each others faces (taboo between adults, but potentially very effective), then showing how that can be used for leverage on the head.. We used the one step drill as an icebreaker, and to get people placing with mindset by limiting the number of movements to safety then discussing how that differed.

We try to avoid fear based marketing, including at the seminars. Cyprus is one of the safest countries on earth (number 5 by a recent study) and crime rates are very low. Bad stuff still happens, but not a lot of it. Discussed if people should train regularly, and explained it’s only worth it if they like it.

Sent a follow up e-mail afterwards to the people who signed up for it, recommending a few books and links to further information.

Think it was a success and the planning paid off. I’ll start offering similar seminars more regularly in the near future, if there is a demand. Got one more public class for the same event at the end of next month, but that’s Aikido, not SD and will be very different.

On a different note, regular classes are back on soon. Pretty much everything shuts here in the summer and most people flee the heat, so we usually take a break. I miss the training, but the extra free evenings have been nice, especially since I’ve been kinda swamped the last few months (hence no new posts, oops). Now I have some time to breathe, been doing some solo training and banging out lesson plans, got things to try with the guinea pigs/students. It will be good to be back.

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Organic class

Friday’s class at the dojo was different. I generally plan Aikido classes to some degree. If not technique by technique at least the general focus. Sometimes a particular concept I want to work through, sometimes a set of techniques I think would be good to practice at the time. Quite often the plan results form something that came up in an earlier class, or something that I’ve shelved for a while.

The plans help with a number of things, mostly tying stuff together and having progressions within the class that make sense. They also help to link the technical practice with the SD stuff. Overall I believe having decent lesson plans improves the quality of the classes. However, occasionally I do throw them out, as with last Friday.

I had a particular move that came up in Tuesday class, that I wanted to build on a bit. Not too much, the plan was to have it in the warm-up, then go to working other things (choke defences was the plan) and tie it back in at the end. The move is using arm extension & leverage to lock the other guy’s neck sideways while trapping an arm. It’s quite uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of this. We did it as a follow up from a basic movement exercise. Then people asked me about a different way to do it, stepping out instead of in and if it was possible, which it was. Discussed comfort levels with different distances and then practised that way.

I hadn’t planned to do follow ups, but someone asked if ikkyo could be done from that position. At this point I decided to try something a little different. Threw out the lesson plan, had people practice a little bit more, and then had everyone work on follow-ups from the initial position. If it works it’s a position of considerable advantage, which has plenty of options. Here’s the thing though, I did not demonstrate any of the follow ups, instead people got to play and to come up with their own.

And a lot of the stuff they came up with is really good. My only function really was to help improve the occasional body mechanic, discuss questions they had or some issues that came up (like uke’s possible reactions) and sometimes go “Hey, did you see you can also do X from there?”.

Did this for a while, then had everyone pick their favourite. And then demonstrate it. Had a little discussion for each one, one or two suggestions for improvement and then had everyone practice them.

I was very happy with the result. One student came up with a technique that is generally considered quite advanced, and did it well. A cool thing was that the favourites differed both in nature and in level of force considerably, from arm-locks all the way up to basically wrecking the attacker. Nice spectrum. I really enjoyed the class, and I believe everybody else did too. It highlights for me three important concepts:

  1. When people are faced with a problem and given freedom to come up with a solution themselves, we internalise the solutions better. This works better if the focus is on adaptability, less well when we need to teach a specific solution, such as passing down a preserved system.

  2. The myth of the “incompetent student” annoys me to no end. The incredibly prevalent idea in the martial arts that the students are as a baseline incompetent and incapable of coming up with anything decent if given the freedom to do so, but must instead be spoon fed prescribed solutions by the exalted teacher is horseshit. Teaching helps, the teachers know more, but treating students as intelligent capable people makes them more likely to actually act that way. Living up/down to expectations and all that.

  3. In a similar vein, one of my teachers used to say “the martial arts are not taught, they are stolen”. It did not make sense to me at the time, and now that it does I don’t fully agree with it, but it’s partially true. What it means is that we must be actively engaged in our learning, “stealing” skills from those around us instead of waiting to be spoon-fed. The basic skill we were working off of in the class is based on something I was shown in the lunch break at a seminar, which I then worked on and integrated into our usual training. The students in the class were “stealing” ideas from me and making them their own, which is very cool.

The class was somewhat focused on technical practice, what we didn’t get around to in the time was putting those skills in a more realistic context, that will be something for a later lesson plan. We did briefly discuss force levels and justification at the end, otherwise not a lot of SD this time. A very nice side effect of this type of lesson is that the techniques & tactics the the students come up with are good starting points for future lesson plans. We’re doing this type of class again for sure.

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Problem solving

A new student joined the class recently. There is a well known thing in Aikido where new students, especially men, tend to be tense & a bit awkward when they start, which makes it harder to make stuff work on them. I like this, to a point. It gives everybody else, especially the physically weaker students, someone to practice with who’s reactions are not the trained and sanitized ukemi we normally deal with in class. So I hold of on the “this is how you respond the right way” talk for a little while, let people get used to dealing with the awkward person.

So two weeks ago during class two of the younger students had trouble getting ikkyo to work on the new guy. So we worked on it, focused on the principles at work and let them try how it could work for them. Then I designed the lesson plan for the next class around this problem.

There are to my mind four issues to consider in this situation, all of which actually solve a slightly different problem. They can probably be broken down further, but I like using the model of four things: Ukemi; technical ability; technical adaptation (Henka Waza, in some styles) and re-framing the problem.

Ukemi we talked about only briefly in the class, since I want to hold off conditioning people to predetermined responses for a little bit. It’s still important though. In Aikido, most techniques rely on fairly specific “gifts”, conditions the threat creates that we can exploit. To me this is the combative part of the whole “Aiki” principle. Anything we do in a confrontation creates some kind of gift for the other guy, if he can find it. Anything he does gives us a gift. A straightened arm gives me the elbow, a bent arm often the shoulder. Forces, structures, empty spaces, balance etc., there is always something. So in class, when practising technique the partner should provide the appropriate gift. Okeeping in mind we also have to practice more free-form, to get people used to finding which gift is given, and let them feel what it is like if it’s not.

Another concern with ukemi is safety, often times tense and resistive ukemi against a well applied technique can be dangerous. I’ve seen & felt people get their necks wrenched, joints sprained and various other unpleasant things in training because they decided to be tense, and either assumed their partner would not be able to make a technique work or else was unwilling to hurt them. Which is not to say we should inflict pain on tense training partners deliberately, far from it. But it can happen by accident. It should be remember that uke is also training as well as subconsciously conditioning himself, and conditioning to rely on the other person not being willing to hurt us in a fight is a really bad idea. Ukemi is a huge subject by itself, these are just a few of the issues to consider. Last point I want to make here is that many schools over-emphasise this factor with new people. Technique doesn’t work well on the new guy? Tell him he’s attacking wrong. Problem solved. But not the problem of the students not being able to work the technique on someone tense, that’s still there. Instead the problem that was dealt with is the persons ability to perform ukemi, which is also important. Its always a good idea to know what problem we’re solving.

OK, factor 2: technical ability. Put simply, getting better at the technique, and more importantly the principles behind the technique. And to clarify, I consider ability to adapt a part of it. Using ikkyo omote as an example (in non-Aikido speak, it’s usually an arm leverage take-down), I can adapt the direction once I have contact and feel resistance. With tension from the partner it s easier for me to find where I am tense myself or where my structure and motion are not quite what they should be. I can change the direction if I feel resistance where I was going. For ikkyo a common adaptation would be to step out along the arm if uke structures against me going forwards and down. This also lets me work on not reflexively tensing up if I feel resistance. If we only ever work with nice soft ukes, tension and resistance can come as a bit of a shock, and the natural instinct to meet strength with strength can sometimes kick in. Getting used to staying relaxed is therefore quite beneficial. I consider the technical ability factor very important. Just as some Aikido schools over-focus on correcting the new students ukemi, some schools (not so much in Aikido, more in other styles) over-focus on switching the technique if something doesn’t work. While that is important and has its place – see factors 3 &4 – if that is the immediate solution we never become very good at the actual techniques (and principles). This factor works to solve the problem of our own ability to apply the technique..

Factor 3 is the variations and switches to different techniques that are in whatever system we study. In Aikido, most locks have a few versions that follow from a partial Ikkyo. In many styles that is actually the first version of the locks taught. Some arts have codified henka waza for when uke resists in specific ways. Others have elaborate flow drills going from technique to technique. All good, adaptability is important. There is a spectrum between different styles regarding how specific the responses are. I’m generally more of a fan of a principles based approach and good improvisation, but there are some good specific transitions. Often the best ones come either from very old styles passed down with reasonable accuracy, which still have the feeling that someone actually used this to solve a problem. Or from stuff that has been recently applied in the specific situation practised; this is less common in the martial arts and more with stuff taught by/to violence professionals (cops, security etc.). In class we practised this factor by transitioning to nikkyo, paying particular attention to how this allows me to overcome the resistance and how to keep control of uke. The problem solved here is how to work around if the original technique becomes unworkable. And using the alternatives recorded in our art gives us a better understanding of how it’s core tactics were originally put together.

Factor 4, re-framing the problem, is very broad. Could go all the way from changing context to introducing non-force options etc.. For the purposes of this post I’ll stick to the physical problem. So in class I demonstrate ikkyo. Uke resists at the point he does, in this case the arm is up, uke stiffens his shoulder and turns away from me, resisting the take-down. I can still make it work without too much trouble, but that does not show what I want to show. From this position I ask the students if this is a problem. Yes it is. Then I ask where I am standing. Behind uke controlling one of his arms. I ask again if this is a problem. Expressions of comprehension follow. I am behind the threat, his ribs are stretched and exposed, one arm is on the elbow leverage point the other one available for use. So from here we work on free-form, slow motion follow ups. We let everybody improvise a bit, as long as the movement is good. Strikes, pushes, leaving, all good. With the focus not on the problem of “Ikkyo doesn’t work” but on “I need to deal with the threat”, suddenly it’s not such a big issue from that position. A nice side effect of this sort of training is that after this drill some people’s ukemi automatically improves as they realise resisting by, for example, turning their back or letting go of an arm are not necessarily the best of ideas. This one addresses the problem of only seeing prescribed solutions.

Of course as mentioned above this does nothing for the problem of “ikkyo doesn’t work”, so we also need the other stuff. The danger with reframing and alternative options is that it makes it really easy to “handwave” away issues. E.g. “oh, I don’T need to do it that well, if he resists I’ll just hit him”. And the alternative options need to be trained, this is crucial. If we assume that in certain situations where the threat reacts differently we hit him, then we better pactice some hitting! We need good (and varried) ukemi, solid core techniques, to understand the tactical alternatives our art gives us, and then to see the other options available to us. Balance is the key here.

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CRGI Instructor Development Course

One of the advantages of practising martial arts is that when, like yesterday, I wake up in the morning and my ribs hurt, I know why. And I’m happy about it.

This has been a really busy week, good weekend though. When I started writing this yesterday, I was sitting in a cafe, looking at the palm trees across the road through rain pouring down outside while the sun is shining. Now I’m back in the same cafe, this place is sort of my second office, anything productive I can do from here and almost all of my studying is done here.

I have some things I’d like to write about, but first as promised my review of the CRGI Self Defence Instructor Development course.

Some background first. CRGI stands for Conflict Research Group International, which is a group of people with a variety of experience with different aspects of violence who came together and set up some online resources for solid information.

This course was the first of its kind, taught by Rory Miller & Garry Smith. The subject was an overview on how to do self defence instruction and do it well. Even for people not teaching self defence but pure martial arts, a lot of the material would have been quite applicable. The course ran for two days, mostly in a classroom style set-up.

The group of attendees was small, mostly experienced instructors, in some cases 30+ of training. I was attending with my fiancée, and we were amongst the least experienced folks there. Decent mix of backgrounds, mostly form the RBSD side or Jiu-jitsu. Unsurprisingly, we were the only Aikido practitioners present.

The admin was nicely done and signing up was uncomplicated. Gary was nice enough to recommend a close hotel, and it was easily possible to get to the location on foot. All very conveniently arranged.

The first day started with an introduction of framework of what self defence and the related training are and are not. Already some very useful information and ways of looking at it here. Coming from a traditional martial arts background there was some discussion of the differences in context and training mindset.

Some discussion of experience thresholds and how people with different amounts of experience see the subject, and how they tend to act as teachers or students. This part definitely made sense in light of people I’ve come across in the past, and provided good context for some viewpoints I had had trouble wrapping my mind around. The last part of the intro was going over some of the mysteries, things that there is currently no solid explanation for. Interesting, and valuable for understanding how isolated incidents and stories may not always be good sources of information.

Part of the rest of the day was spent on background,which was for us a bit of recap. We’ve trained with Rory a couple of times before, so this gave us a chance to retake notes and focus on getting new insights from the material. First was context, the seven things that if we claim to teach self defence, we need to cover. See the book “Facing Violence” for a good overview of them. This is generally a list for instructors, but it seemed to me even more teaching focused this time, and going through the material again was quite useful. I’m bit fuzzy on the order, but I think next was Garry talking about UK self defence law, in the most practically applicable and useful way I’ve come across. Very good overview of the material and what you have to know, illustrated with some stories from Garry’s rather interesting past.

Other things covered here were violence dynamics in some detail, the social/asocial violence divide etc.; then a very quick version of the Logic of Violence seminar set-up; then introduction to principles based teaching, how to break down principles and building blocks. This part is pure gold, and involved some physical stuff to demonstrate the concept, using joint locks as an example. We also got homework, breaking down our own systems in this way. Really interesting especially to hear everybody else’s list. Finally details and impacts of different teaching methods.

Next day – I think -was how to evaluate techniques, especially how to recognise bad ones, identify training & safety flaws and to some degree work around them. How to do an after action debrief so it supports long term improvement. We did an exercise for honest self evaluation as instructors, which was very valuable for highlighting what we do well and where we need to do some work. With that came homework for a definite one year improvement plan (which I’m still working on) Some group discussion on problems that could come up in class and types of problematic students and ways to deal with them in the most productive way.

Discussion on having our paperwork in order and what type of documents we should have. Some stuff here I hadn’t thought of. Reading students, which is huge and really highlighted the difference between looking for martial arts and looking as a self defence instructor. Some of the stuff on recognising people with previous trauma was eye opening if somewhat creepy.

Did designing lesson plans as an exercise and tried to design one for a seminar which was new for me.

The last part before Q&A was on teaching professionals. This was not really relevant for me at this point, but it was very interesting.

Overall the seminar was great, lots of the topics covered are very important, and I think everybody who in any way, implicitly or explicitly claims to teach self defence would benefit greatly from this course. More importantly, their students would benefit. The delivery and organisation of the material was good and the group discussions valuable. The instructors are very approachable and answer questions readily. What could be improved would be the amount of time, this course needs to be longer. There are more topics in this subject, and some of the things, especially on day two, ended up being a little bit rushed. Rory has an after class ritual where you give your one takeaway for that day. Sometimes when I think back to the seminars, my long term takeaway ends up different than I thought. Not this time, my takeaway was that I need to look really hard at the stuff we’re doing in class and continue to make it better. And that’s still it, and for that alone, and providing the tools to do it, the course was absolutely worth it.

Some related links:

Garry’s site & the course ad:


Rory’s blog: