The Ai-kitchen

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

Force & (dys-)function

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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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