The Ai-kitchen

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

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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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Step Right In

This is a train of thought coming from yesterday’s class. Within any given style of Aikido, there are usually very specific entries for each technique. For example you want to do Gyaku Hamni Katate Dori Ikkyo Omote (in English: Arm take-down from mirrored wrist grab) in training, you step in with a strike under the chin just so, you turn cutting the arm at 90 degrees just so, spinning Uke around and then you apply Ikkyo. And if you do it right the mechanics work, no arguing with that. And the entries work for disrupting balance and improving position, if done right. However…

The first problem, which is glaringly obvious, it adds two extra steps to the technique. Two more steps where something might go wrong. If the chance of success is less than 100% (and it’s always less than 100%…), every extra step adds more chance of failure, since all of them now have to work for the technique to work. No brainer, but hard to see from inside a system. And if we always train like this, in the mind of the student the extra steps become part of the technique. Instead of a quick one motion move, it becomes a 3-4 step series. And we don’t see it. Because we’ve been told it’s one move. Even more insidious, since Aikido is fluid (which is a good thing) we start to think that because we do 3 motions fluidly they become one move. Doesn’t quite work like that.

Problem two, the “one true way” syndrome. Uke will subtly adjust, attack in the specific way that that one entry will work, and others won’t, at least not as easily. Or worse, because Uke has been told what to expect, as soon as the technique looks or feels different, resistance will increase. What this does? It conditions the practitioner that nothing else will work, regardless if the instructor actually comes out and says something to that effect. A reinforcement mechanism gets disguised as testing. Go try it with someone who trains another style or another art, preferably several someones, and then say that the other person will always react/attack in a specific way.

Problem three, components of the actual entry are often under-trained. How many times do we include a strike to disrupt balance, and how little do we train people to actually hit hard? And no, simply pointing your hand at someone’s face does not reliably work. And how much do the entries depend on an incompetent attack by someone from out of range, expecting to lose?

So I’ve been complaining a lot, but is all this actually important? Maybe, depends what you’re training/teaching for. It sure does make grading people easier (which is the whole point I suspect) because it’s easier to see if everybody is moving right than if they’re moving well (credit to Rory Miller for that thought). They do provide a good mechanism to progressively teach correct body mechanics to large groups over an extended period of time. Now if the purpose is to hand down a specific style accurately, to puzzle out subtleties of body mechanics and effectively have a hobby for the next couple of decades, there is actually no problem. If the style is solid, and the teacher is very good, and has a full understanding of the purpose of every part of the technique and can transmit that knowledge, it can work for creating very good practitioners. Only one person I’ve personally trained with who teaches like this comes to mind, and he has decades of experience and teaches full time, very much around transmission of style (which, incidentally, is not Aikido).

BUT if you’re implicitly or explicitly teaching/training self-defence then yes, all the issues above are a problem. Solutions? Not sure I’m qualified to give any. I know what we are trying at the dojo here. First, we train the most simple, direct version of the technique. Ikkyo without the entry, so everybody understands what conditions they need to make it work (difference between understanding and knowing, might have to be a different post…). Training in how to apply stuff in context, and how to improvise.

Then an applicable entry, simple stuff that has margins for error and is to the point. For the example above, stepping with both hands forwards towards Uke’s face at an angle. Using the right mechanics to lever the held hand up. It’s a single step that fits in the core technique and does not add extra time. If it works, we’re in position to continue Ikkyo straight away. And there are options if something goes wrong. If Uke lets go, we have both hands on the face, easy to work from there. If Uke is striking with his off hand, our rising hands with the step protect us. If Uke holds the hand down, we’re in a good position for Ten Chi Nage. The best part? It does not rely on the initial wrist grab, works from close distance and can be trained as a flinch response.

Then we use non-classical attacks and have Uke react differently, and see if it still works. It’s scarier in a way, because every test means something could fail. Or a student could come up with a better way than me *gasps in horror*. Much safer to stick to prescribed formulas, and tell the students “you attack wrong” if it doesn’t work. But that’s idiotic, and doesn’t help anyone get better. If a students does it better, we’re doing that.

Now, we do the classical entries as well, but afterwards. For them each step is broken down and the purpose examined, how it gets to the point where the technique can work. Then it’s trained, if we have to hit we hit hard. Understanding, not memorising, is the goal, and it is made clear that this is for martial arts purposes, not application.

So, my suggestion? Cut the technique to the simplest way possible, without the entry what do you need to make it work –bent arm/straight arm/access to neck/wrist contact/balance disrupted forwards/backwards etc. – then see how to get there. And the really cool thing? Usually if you do that, the classical entries in context begin to make more sense.