01 December 2009

The meaning of vulnerability: Shintaido as a subculture

Here is a paradox: sometimes you meet someone who, having tried some other martial arts, has decided to participate in Shintaido. Perhaps they are very enthusiastic at first, and because they are in good physical condition and have previous training, they are able to make relatively rapid progress from the technical point of view. But then something happens. There suddenly seems to be some obstacle that can't be easily overcome: a recognizable, yet difficult-to-define obstacle.

Sometimes— Aoki-sensei alludes to this in discussing Rakutenkai and the origins of Shintaido, and it also describes my own experiences— a person encounters some feeling of brutality in the martial arts, and this motivates them to quit and try something else. Even if there is no feeling of brutality or brutal behavior, martial arts practiced as self-defense often involve situations where one may experience pain inflicted by another person (one's sparring partner). This is a normal part of training in most martial arts (including some parts of Shintaido), and it is well-accepted that as long as the attitudes and motivations of the participants are legitimate, this is an aspect of the practice that one must put up with in order to progress and achieve competence.

In some martial arts, in addition to occasional pain, discomfort, muscle fatigue or minor (on hopes) injuries such as bruises caused by strikes, blocks, and falling, there is the additional issue of grappling, holds, joint locks or pins. Many martial arts such as Chin Na (Qinna), Jujutsu, perhaps Aikido etc. feature kumite (partner practice or sparring) techniques in which one may be put into various uncomfortable positions from which it is difficult to escape. Even when one is not being injured, the physical pain is minor, and one has consensually agreed to practice these techniques with a partner, the final result is— by definition, if it is a self-defense oriented martial art— being in a physical situation in which one is vulnerable, uncomfortable, unable to escape, and in which the threat of physical injury is present.

While all this (except for muscle fatigue) may strike the experienced Shintaido practitioner as somewhat alien to the more humanistic world of Shintaido, which emphasizes freedom and cooperation rather than fighting and self-defense, there is a certain common element. If we look at people practicing some of the most basic Shintaido kumite— for example Tenshingoso kumite or Kiri-oroshi kumite— we can often see that one of the partners is in a very vulnerable and open position, leaning almost awkwardly backwards with the wrists and elbows bent at angles that limit the possibilities of further movement.

Similarly, at least at first glance, if we observe people practicing joint locks or holds in a self-defense oriented martial art, we may see people (typically the partner who plays the role of uke, or attacker) in vulnerable positions. Sometimes they will also be leaning awkwardly one way or another, perhaps almost off-balance and about to be thrown, with the mobility of their elbows, wrists, and possibly legs, limited.

Before we discuss the details of the differences between these situations, that is, the technical differences between Shintaido, and for example the Aiki-jujutsu shown in the picture above, we will focus more generally on the theme of vulnerability. All of these pictures show people in vulnerable situations, and yet there are important differences that go beyond (and yet include) the merely technical aspects. I think that the meaning of their vulnerability is different in these different martial arts.

In order to make sense of this, we should take a short side-trip into the discipline of cultural anthropology. Anthropology is, of course, the study of human beings, including their biology, evolution, and culture. Anthropologists believe that the way humans use symbols is quite unique, and forms the foundation of cultural adaptations that have played an important role in our evolution. Concretely, they ask this question: how is it possible that humans, who compared to other animals are slow and weak, without big teeth or claws, have become so spectacularly successful as a species? Our ancestors spread across almost every continent on Earth, arriving in the Americas relatively recently (approximately 20,000 years ago), and as a species we have come to dominate the planet so extensively that our own worst enemy is not hungry lions or bears (for whom individual unarmed humans make a tasty treat), but rather ourselves, either by war or ecological destruction.

Why (collectively) should lions or tigers be afraid of these slow, weak, virtually toothless and clawless animals, who can't even climb a tree fast enough to escape, rather than the other way around? The answer, of course (according to anthropologists), is our big brains. Our big brains made it possible for us not only to make tools (including weapons for defense and tools for hunting), but also for us to use language and other symbols. Language and other symbols made it possible for our ancestors to create culture, which is a symbol-based system of knowledge and values— a kind of coded information— that can be passed on from one person to another and from one generation to the next.

Now, DNA is also coded information that is passed on from one generation to the next, but here is the evolutionary advantage of culture: DNA gets modified through evolution more slowly, and perhaps less flexibly, than culture. For example, in order for a lion to "invent" a better claw for, say, grabbing the haunches of an antelope running at high speed, it will take many generations. There must be some accidental mutation of the DNA that determines the structure of the claw that causes some improvement, and then this improvement must give the next generation some advantage in surviving and having more babies that survive, and then over many generations the improvement spreads through the population. This is the (oversimplified) essence of Darwin's theory.

An individual lion cannot deliberately "invent" a new claw (due to its mental limitations), but ancient humans could (and did) invent better spears, spear-throwers, bows and arrows, axes, agricultural tools— and on and on. When an individual invents something advantageous, the knowledge of how to make and use it can be quickly transferred to others and to the following generations by means of symbols (such as language), and in a larger sense by the whole symbol-system of the culture. The capacity for culture is in our DNA; but the actual details of specific cultures are learned. Therefore the descendants of the tribe that invents a better spear, or fire for cooking food, can learn it from their elders. They can enjoy the advantages within just one generation, without waiting for the much longer process of physically growing bigger claws or stronger stomachs. Anthropologists consider this evolutionary advantage of culture to be perhaps the most important and unique feature of our humanity.

The knowledge of how to make a better spear is an obvious advantage in an environment where spears are important for survival, but anthropologists believe that the same principle often applies to much more complicated and less obviously practical features of human culture such as religious beliefs, rituals, art, kinship and social structures, political hierarchies, etc., all of which we learn from the culture we grow up in.

The key to understanding the advantages of culture is that the meanings of things are flexible; they are encoded in the culture, but they are learned. Therefore they can change. The meaning of the same concrete thing can be different in different cultures; or within one culture, it can change over time.

For example, for the acorn woodpecker, an oak tree is its home and its source of food. That is the "meaning" (if we can use that word) of an oak tree for an acorn woodpecker. It has a special kind of beak adapted for pecking into oak trees and a specially adapted digestive system to eat acorns and so on. For that bird, "oak" means "food" and it will for as long as its physical traits are adapted for that environment. Its ability to behave towards that tree in any other way are quite limited.

But for humans, according to their cultural traits, the oak can be seen as a source of food (the acorns, at least); a source of fuel; material for making tools; a sacred tree that should be worshipped and never cut down; a symbol of the life cycle; a vital part of the ecological system; something useless that must be cut down to make space for farms or houses; etc. etc. These cultural traits allow the same oak tree to mean many different things for different groups of people (that is, people of different cultures). And according to their learned cultural traits, humans who are biologically identical will behave quite differently towards the same tree.

Returning now to our observations of the role of vulnerability in various martial arts, I believe we can say that different martial arts have different values about what is important, what is correct or not correct, and may attach different meanings to similar movements. Different martial arts may be considered different cultures (or sub-cultures). Without commenting further on other martial arts that I don't know much about, what we observe in Shintaido is that a positive value is placed on vulnerability.

This is clearly reflected in the language— both oral traditions and texts— that are part of the Shintaido tradition. For example, people in the Shintaido community often speak of opening up, being open, or allowing the other into one's space. The founder, Aoki-sensei, writes that "[i]n becoming a person who is totally defeated, you are admitting and approving your powerlessness, your helplessness. Accepting defeat and crying for help are stronger than the strongest form in the martial arts." Whether we take this as literally true or not is beside the point (personally, as a member of the Shintaido community, I do); but clearly it represents an endorsement of vulnerability.

While the above may seem to refer more to a kind of psychological or spiritual vulnerability, the positive value of vulnerability is clearly reflected in the actual techniques and movements of Shintaido. Students and practitioners doing the kinds of movements shown in figure 1 are encouraged to experience them as positive, perhaps to relax and even "enjoy" them (possibly in spite of some initial discomfort). They are encouraged to do so by the culture of Shintaido, as represented in its philosophies of "life exchange," "openness," "Ten-Chi-Jin hitobito ware ittai," ("unification of cosmos, earth, human and other people"), etc. The values of the philosophy (including our example of the positive value of vulnerability) are encoded in and transmitted by the symbolic tools of the culture (texts, oral transmission, practicing in a group, and so on).

In the same way that the same oak tree can mean many different things to different people according to their culture (their system of learned beliefs, attitudes and practices), the meaning attached to being in a vulnerable position can be quite different in different martial arts. Furthermore, as we have seen, there is a connection between the meaning of the oak tree and one's actual behavior towards it, which may be influenced or modified accordingly. Correspondingly, our actual behavior concerning being in vulnerable positions is influenced and modified by the Shintaido philosophy.

This brings us back to the technical details of Shintaido movements. There are no joint locks in the basic Shintaido curriculum. When we observe the kinds of Shintaido kumite mentioned above, we can see that the person in the vulnerable position is gripping the other, rather than being gripped. As we can see form the illustrations, this is quite different from most other martial arts, and certainly from those that are intended as practical self-defense. Therefore, the Shintaido practitioner in an awkward, exposed, backward-leaning, vulnerable position can modulate from moment to moment the degree to which, through their own act of gripping, they freely enter into that situation; and of course they can release their grip entirely whenever they want to.

This aspect of the technique may reflect the positive value placed on vulnerability in Shintaido; or the priority placed on entering freely into the situation; or the importance of the leader (the one who is being gripped) encouraging their partner by leading responsibly and sensitively rather than by force; or all of these, and many others in addition. What becomes clear from our analysis, though, is this: just as culture in general is not only values and idea, but also behaviors (towards oak tress, for example), likewise the sub-culture of Shintaido is not only words and philosophy, but is embodied in the movement techniques.

This may help to explain the situation of the person who, even though their physical condition is quite good, encounters some obstacle in Shintaido practice. It is not only a question of physical talent, nor even of the individual's psychologically sensitive areas or psycho-physical energies that may be stirred up by experiences of vulnerability (though this certainly can happen). In some cases, I believe it goes beyond the individual and actually represents a clash of cultures.

As a sub-culture, Shintaido embodies values that may be at odds with the dominant culture. A person raised in the dominant culture, who then enters a sub-culture with somewhat different values and a different view of the world, may actually experience culture shock. Culture shock is well-documented by anthropologists, and is frequently experienced on a physical or visceral level, sometimes including extreme feelings such as nausea, disorientation, sudden loss of energy, and aversion to all sensory stimuli.

What does it mean for us the Shintaido community to recognize ourselves as a sub-culture? It is much more than a question of some kind of identity, such as "we are the Shintaido people, the Shintaido tribe." We can think of Shintaido as a new technology, an new invention— which in fact it is. It's true that the invention of a new technology by an individual or a small group can lead to new and different cultural identities. "We are the bow-and-arrow users, they are the spear-throwers" also becomes "we are the deer-hunting people, they are the mammoth-eating people" and possibly "we are the totem-pole-carving people, they are the cave-painting people." Depending on the fate of the mammoth, it can also become "we are the people-who-are-here. They are the people-that-were."

Therefore archeologists may identify ancient groups of people (who were biologically identical) by the differing types of arrowheads and pottery they made, and then correlate these with cultural traits, and through this map the fates of whole past civilizations (sounds glamorous, doesn't it?). But this can only happen if the new technology becomes embedded in the culture— if it becomes part of the cultural identity— and is then transmitted from person to person and generation to generation.

So, while the technology of Shintaido has been (mostly) invented, the process of embedding the technology of Shintaido in a viable sub-culture is just beginning. How can we nurture this process? I think we have barely begun to articulate the core values of Shintaido. "Core values" refers to something more than concepts or ideas. They are perhaps principles that operate in the background, flavoring and giving reason to our behaviors. For example, if we hold that "vulnerability has positive value," it changes the meaning of certain techniques. It influences our attitudes and approach to practicing those movements, and also serves as a guideline to help us know if we are practicing correctly.

In order to make a viable Shintaido sub-culture, I believe that part of our task is to uncover or unpack the values that are hidden within the practice of Shintaido. To do this we have to first, of course, practice Shintaido; then we experience the world of Shintaido; then we start to articulate the experience of our Shintaido world, to make the structure of a Shintaido sub-culture. Hopefully a structure with a door, so that others can enter.

31 October 2009

Brain science reveals secret of shoko, "A" timing

An article in New Scientist magazine mentions measurements of beta waves in the brain connected with "sustained muscle activities" (read: shoko, 10-position meditation) and changes that occur "just before" a person begins to move (read: A-timing, toate).

14 April 2009

The Shintaido non-method of breathing (4): Tenshingoso

Tenshingoso (天真五相, loosely translatable as "five expressions of the reality of the cosmos") is one of the basic forms of Shintaido, which includes vocalization of five sounds (A, E, I, O, Um) in combination with movements.

According to Shintaido instructor Giovanni Rossi, our general natural tendency is to inhale when we extend our arms upward or outward and to exhale when we bring our arms downward or closer to ourselves. For example, observe your natural tendency to inhale when reaching up for something on a high shelf.

In contrast, when practicing Tenshingoso, in conjunction with vocalizing, we exhale while our hands and arms are extending upward or outward. So because of the vocalizing, Tenshingoso is certainly a form of breath control or a breathing technique (even if the method of breathing is never explicitly mentioned).

In other words, we can consider any way of breathing which is different from what we tend to do without any special training or practice as "breath control" or a breathing technique. This raises the question of whether Tenshingoso can be considered a type of qigong (氣功, sometimes also transliterated ch'i kung). Qi (Japanese ki) can be translated as "life force energy," while gong means "skill acquired through training". Generally, qigong is a Chinese discipline associated with both martial arts and health exercise that encompasses a broad range of methods for working with the life force.

I can say from experience that Chinese recognize some Shintaido techniques as qigong. During a trip to China in 1987, Michael Thompson and I visited the Beidaihe Qigong Rehabilitation Hospital of Hebei Province (Hebeisheng Beidaihe Qigong Liaoyang Yuan, 河北省北戴河气功疗养院). In spite of not having a letter of introduction (de rigueur in China), we were graciously received and the director met with us and gave us a quite enthusiastic and detailed explanation of qigong and its medical applications. Unfortunately a lot of it was beyond my linguistic capabilities, but one main point stuck clearly in my mind:

True qigong consists of the harmonious integration and disciplined training of three elements:
  • breathing
  • movement
  • visualization
I'm sure that most Shintaido practitioners would agree that Tenshingoso fits this definition quite well and therefore can be considered a type of qigong.

03 April 2009

The Shintaido non-method of breathing (3)

Well, that last post was really more about how breathing is not taught in Shintaido than about how it is. So let's get down to the nitty-gritty.

Shintaido jumping exercises (shin shin kaihatsu taiso 身心開発体操) were discussed in an earlier post from the point of view of getting in touch with our instinctive intentionality. If we look at these techniques from the point of view of breathing, a few things become clear:

1. They are generally very physically demanding aerobic exercises, typically involving elevated heart rate and breathing (maybe a little sweating as well).

2. Opening movements of the hips, waist, chest and abdomen are emphasized.

3. Many of these exercises also involve serious challenges to our balance. That is, movements where we deliberately transgress the boundaries of the the zone within which we can easily maintain physical balance activate reflex arcs (discussed in this post), which are mechanisms by which the body instinctively recovers its stability.

4. The combination of 1, 2 and 3 means that the abdomen, ribcage, diaphragm, spine, hips and pelvis — composing the core or trunk of the body — are being intensively exercised in several different ways simultaneously. Heavy demands are placed on the body core in regarding mechanics of physical movement, maintenance of stability and of breathing or oxygen intake all at the same time.

5. Obviously there is a profound connection between emotional states and breathing. Emotions such as fear, anger, joy (including laughter), etc. affect our breathing patterns. At the same time, the features of the shin shin kaihatsu taiso movements mentioned in 1-3 (intense physical exercise, opening the most vulnerable parts of the body, and being off-balance) have a potentially dramatic influence on our emotional condition. In combination, it's clear that these movements can directly affect our breathing patterns, and also impact our emotional condition, which then affects our breathing.

The above may explain why even people who are "in good shape" can quickly feel exhausted when introduced to these exercises for the first time. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, breathing lies at the cusp of the autonomic and consciously-controlled functions of the body. Likewise, we might also say that it lies at the cusp of our physical and emotional or spiritual lives. This is probably key to the meaning of the name shin shin kaihatsu taiso — "mind/heart* and body opening exercises." (* "Mind" and "heart" are the same word in Japanese).

To sum up, the practice of Shintaido shin shin kaihatsu taiso exercises is clearly a method that has potentially profound impact on our way of breathing, even if nothing is explicitly said about "breathing" in the teaching and learning process.

This may also have important practical implications for the future development of the Shintaido curriculum, as many instructors are involved in bringing modified versions of Shintaido to communities with special needs (for example elderly people). Obviously, very few elderly people should be encouraged to do classical shin shin kaihatsu taiso exercises. However, as we develop modified versions of many Shintaido movements suitable for specialized audiences, I believe that identifying and maintaining the underlying principles of the movements will help us stick close to the essence of what Shintaido is about, even as the specific movements may be presented in modified form.

25 March 2009

The Shintaido non-method of breathing (2)

Typically in Shintaido we avoid explicit instruction concerning breathing and we say we breathe "naturally," but this is deceptively simple. It doesn't necessarily mean to just abandon being attentive to your breathing. However, there are other possibilities besides consciously controlling the breathing, which involve listening to the body taking priority over controlling it. If the body has it's own wisdom, then the communication between the body and the conscious mind (or will) is a two-way street. Signals go in both directions, and rather than trying to control our bodies to do certain movements (or to breathe in certain way), we might try to tune our bodies so that— like tuning an antenna— we can become more receptive to the rhythms of the universe that are naturally mirrored in each of our bodies.

The concept that fundamental natural processes are mirrored both in the larger universe (Japanese dai shizen 大自然, lit. "great nature" or Mother Nature) and within ourselves has a long tradition in Japanese and Chinese philosophy, especially Taoism and Neo-Confucianism. (Neo-Confucianism 理學 was a philosophical system in China that developed from the 9th to 13th centuries C.E. and synthesized Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist thought).

From the scientific point of view, breathing is generally regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), meaning that it carries on without conscious control (for example when sleeping or thinking about something else). However, unlike most other autonomic functions like heartbeat, digestion or dilation of the pupils, breathing can be consciously controlled quite easily (within limits) by anyone. So it lies in some ways on the cusp of conscious and autonomic functions.

This suggests that when we deliberately control the breathing using specific techniques (as in many types of Qigong and yoga), we are actually working with the the brain and the relationship between different parts of the nervous system. These kinds of techniques may be effective, but probably should not be approached lightly. Traditionally they pre-supposed complete dedication to an entire system of training, and were also considered potentially dangerous even for initiates. Generally this kind of control of breathing is not much practiced in Shintaido, which is intended to be safe and accessible to everyone.

However (as hinted at in Part 1), this doesn't mean that Shintaido entirely lacks a specific approach to breathing. Does Shintaido include some kind of "tuning" methods (as referred to above) that also concern breathing? A little bit of deeper investigation into the basic techniques of Shintaido that are taught to every beginner reveals many hidden treasures... stay tuned.

15 March 2009

Why we jump

Shintaido includes many jumping, hopping and walking movements with the center of gravity lowered (shin shin kaihatsu taiso 身心開発体操, literally "heart-mind and body opening exercises"). These exercises are a significant part of most Shintaido practices and are unique to Shintaido— no other martial art or movement discipline that I know of included such unusual ways of moving forward through space. But the precises purpose of these exercises remains a bit mysterious and might benefit from deeper analysis.

The phrase "moving forward through space" may be the key, since moving or jumping forward is typically emphasized more than, say, jumping as high as possible. Many of these movements call attention to the act of moving forward. In this age of mechanized transportation, we sometimes take the simple act of moving through space for granted— just step on the escalator, push the elevator button for the floor you want, or get in the car turn the ignition and put the pedal to the metal. We may forget the degree direct personal effort that was required to move from one place to another in past times.

On a more basic level, most people simply see what they want or where they want to go, and reach for it or walk to it. But even for people without a disability or injury, it wasn't always so easy. Imagine the infant we all once were, moving towards something intentionally for the first time, every resource it has engaged in the incredible struggle to move itself forward.

The infant represents our past, our earlier self, for whom moving forward through space was a challenging step along the path of engaging with the world. In some ways, the jumping exercises in Shintaido return us to that struggle. But we can look back further to the evolutionary past to consider the meaning of "going forward."

In the 1950s, the American neuroscientist Paul MacLean proposed the concept of the triune brain. While his ideas are no longer considered scientifically valid (see this article in Scientific American), his concept of a "reptilian brain"— an evolutionarily older structure that persists within our modern human brains and controls the most basic instincts and urges such as sex, hunger and aggression— may still carry some metaphorical or psychic meaning.

Reptililan brain or no, we do carry the history of evolution written in our DNA and in the structure of our bodies, but applying the word "aggression" to those primitive drives may be somewhat misleading. We usually think aggression has something to do with anger or hostility, but it's difficult to imagine that fish or reptiles take things personally, feel insulted and angry, and then behave aggressively. In fact, the Latin root of the word aggressive, which we can also see in words like egress or progress, is gradi: to step, to walk. So in this sense, aggression is something quite neutral: simply going forward.

Going forward is one of the most basic expressions of life. Of course, one may believe that everything in the universe is "alive" in some philosophical sense. But from the practical point of view, it doesn't seem that a rock feels hungry, and then takes action to fulfill its needs. A lion, on the other hand— or for that matter, even a bacterium— actively moves towards sources of food. In this sense, even bacteria behave "intentionally". They don't just sit there passively, letting the chaos of the environment take over. They make efforts to stay alive, going forward to seek what they need from their worlds. They embody a self-organizing principle, which is about as close as we have come to defining "life."

Symbolically, consciously moving forward through space suggests progress, stepping forward into a new world, leaving our old selves behind. Because they are a never-ending challenge, the jumping movements of Shintaido can re-introduce even the most athletic among us to the struggle to move forward, and by this they let us feel our connection with the primal foundations of all life. Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; bacteria wiggle, salmon swim upstream, and here and there on the surface of the earth in practice halls or on green fields, people dressed in white hop and jump.

09 March 2009

The Shintaido non-method of breathing (1)

Occasionally students ask how they should breathe when doing a certain Shintaido movement or technique. Of course, breathing is very important, and many martial arts, Qigong (氣功), yoga etc. have quite sophisticated and developed breathing methods.

Generally in Shintaido we don't use many methods of consciously controlling the breathing (with the exception of just a few breathing exercises (kokyu-ho 呼吸法). The two most common elements of Shintaido practice that influence the breathing are using the voice, and the many movements using the center of the body, especially the jumping exercises (shin-shin kaihatsu taiso 心身開発体操) . These movements can have profound effects on your way breathing. The key is to practice these movements vigorously enough and often enough that the effects work their way into your body, and then they can re-shape your movements patterns and cause your breathing to spontaneously re-adjust itself.

28 February 2009

Shintaido from the physiological perspective, part 2:stability and extension

(Interview with physiotherapist and Senior Instructor of Shintaido Ula Chambers, continued from previous post)

David Franklin: What I'm thinking about is, we have this traditional Japanese philosophy called Ten Chi Jin (天地人 lit. "heaven earth human" — what Mircea Eliade called the axis mundi). It puts such an emphasis on verticality and balance. Ten Chi Jin philosophy equates keeping your spinal column vertical with a cosmological or natural, harmonious relationship with nature. What I'm aiming to explore is what goes on in the body about keeping the spine vertical. What goes on in the nervous system, or the brain, or the interaction of all of them.

Ula Chambers: Well here's a thought: there are ways of moving that require more or less energy. If your body is tense for some reason and your muscles are contracted, it's using more energy, naturally. That makes sense doesn't it, because the muscle needs oxygen and glucose etc. to be able to contract. It needs the whole metabolic process to be able to keep contracted. So you're using energy. If your spinal column is vertical it's more efficient. For example, people doing fudodachi stance (不動立ち, "stable stance") often lean one way or the other don't they. Their arms are out like that and they often tend to lean towards their arms, which isn't a very energy-efficient way of moving.

If you align your body in such a way that doesn't require unnecessary muscles to become tense because they're keeping you in an abnormal position, then you have more energy to use for other things. So then you may be to continue, for instance, or to think. So there's an energetic reason, an energy efficiency reason.

And that's why it's "natural movement." And the unnatural movement happens because we're not used to, or we haven't understood the movement, but that's part of the process of learning the technique. It's not to say that people don't move naturally when they do move, because when we're moving for our normal day-to-day things, we do move naturally— for us— we each have our own movement patterns. But some people don't move as well as they should, they're putting more loads than they need to on certain structures and so forth because of their habit of movement.

In a way, Shintaido is challenging the habits of movement that people come with. For instance even such a simple thing as standing in seiritsu-tai ( 正立体 neutral meditation stance), will make us aware of the sensation in our body, and it will make us aware of the habit of movement. One of the key things that happens to people is they learn to relax their shoulders and move. So instead of keeping the shoulders tense, you actually have the energy available for core stability. I think that's what happens when you have that sensation in your koshi (腰 center of the body) that it's stable. You've lost the tension maybe up here (indicates shoulders) and the energy is more concentrated in the muscles that are keeping you stable, the core muscles.

Core stability muscles help with balance. There are neural feedback mechanisms which, for instance, if you learn to stand up, the trunk muscles are working to keep you stable, hip and thigh muscles are working to keep you upright. If you then move your arm, that actually disturbs your balance. And the only reason I haven't fallen over is that my brain has learnt that what happens when I lift my arm up is that the forces in the body change, and even before I've lifted my arm, muscles in my body are working to prevent this movement from unbalancing me. And this is what I've learned just by going around normally.

In Shintaido we do a lot of this (extending arms) and in fact when you look at beginners, they fall over a lot don't they? This extension is a big challenge to our balance. And you see that beginners often stumble or lose balance a bit.

DF: Or, they don't reach out enough.

UC: Or they don't reach out enough! Because actually, this is comfortable (reaching somewhat), but that isn't comfortable (extending more), that's going to make me fall over, so I'm not going to do it. That's why they don't do it.

DF: And where is this leading?

UC: This is leading to core stability. Part of it is that you have to re-learn that your body can cope with this extreme extension, so we have to encourage people a lot, we really have to encourage them to reach out far and push out far, because when they've done it often enough, the body will learn. I can feel, stretching my arms out now, pushing out really far, I can feel these stomach core stability muscles are working really hard. And if I put an object in my hand, a bokuto or a bo (bokuto: 木刀, wooden sword; bo 棒 long staff), they're working even harder!

But what happens is, when people begin, they try and stabilize this (the bokuto or bo) with the upper body. And they can't relax. But that whole thing about pushing out with your koshi is about moving the stability from up here (shoulder area) to down here (waist and hips area) — even while extending the arms holding something. These muscles (around the hips and waist) are huge, and they're capable of handling really big forces.

19 February 2009

Shintaido from the physiological perspective, part 1: reflex arcs and natural movement

Excerpt of an interview with Ula Chambers, 22nd July 2003

Ula Chambers is a senior instructor of Shintaido in Great Britain and a professional physiotherapist. (At the time of this interview, she was in her final year of study as a physiotherapy student).

Reflex arc, defined: The route followed by nerve impulses in the production of a reflex act, from the peripheral receptor organ through the afferent nerve to the central nervous system synapse and then through the efferent nerve to the effector organ.

If this is too technical for you, don't be alarmed. In more day-to-day language, a reflex arc occurs when a sensory impulse travels to the central nervous system and back out to the periphery (say a muscle), and there is a response before the person makes a conscious decision to respond.

Ula Chambers: Balance is really interesting, becuase there's a kind of chain of balance reactions that happen. It involves the core stability muscles in your trunk, but there's also a foot/ankle reaction. For instance if I'm falling over there, I don't have to think "I'm going to put my foot there to stop myself from falling over." Eventually you realize that you have put your foot there.

David Franklin: You're saying that when you loose your balance, it just happens-- the foot goes by virtue of this sensory nervous system reflex arc.

UC: Yes, and it involves various muscles in the body. The muscles that need to do it work, but also all the muscles in the torso have to respond to stabilize the trunk. For instance, if I were standing here and somebody brushed past me, what happens is it begins with an ankle reaction to stabilize the feet on the floor. It's a tightening of the gastrocs and tibialis at the front which stabilizes the leg at the bottom.

DF: Suppose I were to say that when we do wakame taiso ("seaweed exercise" わかめ体操), we are invoking this reflex arc that normally operates automatically and unconsciously. And now we are trying to do it consciously. We're trying to activate it consciously, but we're not trying to do each movement consciously. Is this perhaps one of the things it means when we refer to "natural movement" in Shintaido?

Let me put it as a speculative question: what might the effect be of taking this reflex arc that exists already as a pattern in the body, and trying to be conscious of it, without interfering?

UC: If you're conscious of it, then it becomes a process of your higher brain functions. When it's unconscious you don't have any knowledge of it as such. But when you have knowledge of it, then it's part of a wide range of choices that you have for voluntary movement. So therefore it's a tool, and you can use it. You can choose to use it, as opposed to it just being there for a particular instance. You can make the decision to work on it.

If we do wakame for instance, and we train ourselves almost to feel how it is to be unbalanced, depending on how flexible you are or how much you can let go, the effect is to challenge the system. It's like the study we do with bokuto (wooden sword 木刀), where you're understanding what's going on behind you, developing your sixth sense. I think you're training your senses to be aware of things, and then to be able to use them. It's like that whole thing with the Star Wars Jedi stuff, "use the force," it's that kind of thing we're doing.

DF: Part of what I'm hearing is that we often make this vague statement that Shintaido will help you to develop more natural movement, and if someone were to ask you "Well what does that mean, specifically?" this would be one of the answers: we take these reflex patterns that are part of the human body, and develop them, and use them more consciously. Which leads me to another question:

What kinds of things might interfere with reflex arcs of the sensory nervous system?

UC: You have inhibition and excitation from the higher centers. For instance, you know about the knee jerk reflex, when the doctor hits the knee with a little rubber mallet. Well, if they're thinking about it, sometimes you do that to people and it's practically nothing. That's because they're aware of it, they've stopped it somehow; there's some kind of inhibition going on from the brain that says "I'm not doing this." So you have to distract people, tell them to count in French backwards from 10, or spell their mother's maiden name or something, and then you do get a response.

DF: So to clarify, reflex arcs can be inhibited or enhanced, depending on what the conscious brain is doing.

UC: Yes. What it does is, the brain will adapt the reflex to suit the environment. So what we're doing is we're creating an environment.

DF: Would you say that we're creating an environment that nurtures that reflex to occur more?

UC: I suppose so, because we're making it happen often. But we're making it happen in such a way that we're controlling it.

13 February 2009

Magic eye movements

Clearly, the way we use our eyes - that is, conscious control of eye movement and direction - is important in Shintaido and other martial arts. A recent article by Devon Powell about magicology (the scientific study of magic and illusion) in New Scientist magazine (24 December 2008) sheds some light on both the practical martial arts applications and the philosophical implications of consciously controlling our eye movements.

An excerpt from the article:

Over the past decade or so it has become clear just how scarce attention is: focusing on one thing can make you oblivious to other things that would otherwise be obvious....

[Researcher Gustav] Kuhn recently demonstrated this using a trick where he makes a cigarette and lighter "disappear". In truth he simply drops them into his lap when your narrow spotlight of attention is pointing elsewhere.

By tracking eye movements as people watched a video of the trick, Kuhn showed that people miss the deception even when they're looking directly at it. It works because, at the crucial moments, he makes attention-grabbing gestures and eye movements that divert attention (but not gaze) away from the action....

During his training as a professional thief [pickpocket], [Apollo] Robbins was taught to use two types of hand motion to control his victims' attention. Slow, circular hand motions are good at engaging and keeping attention, while fast, straight ones are useful for quickly diverting it from one spot to another.

There are several eye-movement training methods in martial arts that I'm aware of. In some styles of T'ai Chi an unfocused attention covers the whole visual field, enhancing peripheral vision. In other styles the eyes are focused on the hands as they move. In karate partner sparring, I was taught to focus on the opponent's chest or on an area above the head, but to avoid looking at the eyes. (This may relate to avoiding focusing on social cues such as the other person's eye movements and facial expressions - see below). Certainly there are many other eye-movement training methods in other martial arts, meditation techniques, etc. that I'm not familiar with.

In Shintaido we often use distant eye focus, focusing beyond what we "actually" see to the infinite distance. This suggests that we are training ourselves to focus beyond that which grabs our immediate attention - which, in the context of self-defense, could potentially mean another person's attempt to misdirect our attention in much the same way that magicians or pickpockets do. (There are some other eye-movement training methods in Shintaido, such as the meditation described by Aoki-sensei on page 209 of his textbook Total Stick Fighting: Shintaido Bojutsu).

At the same time, this practice of literally looking beyond the illusion could function as a practical method for exposing the mechanisms of perception to conscious observation or control. A further excerpt from the New Scientist article:

A second key tool in the magic repertoire is illusions, particularly cognitive illusions. These rely on the fact that much of what you think you see is actually invented by your brain. Perception is not about capturing a full picture of reality, but taking snapshots of the world and making the rest up.

In the vanishing ball illusion, for example, a magician tosses a small ball up and down while following it with his eyes. He fakes a third toss, keeping the ball in his hand but still moving his eyes as if watching it. This reliably creates the illusion of the ball being thrown upwards - then disappearing into thin air.

Kuhn recently brought this trick into his lab to examine how it works. By tracking people's eyes as they watched it being done, he found something unexpected. On real throws, the eye movement of subjects followed the ball's trajectory. But on the trick toss, their eyes remain firmly glued on the eyes of the magician. This, says Kuhn, shows that the brain overrules the eyes and creates an image of an object that doesn't actually exist....

The trick also relies on another glitch in the visual system. Information captured by the retina takes about 100 milliseconds to reach the brain. To compensate for this lag, the brain predicts what the world will look like in the near future and acts on this prediction rather than the real information at its disposal. This is useful in real-world situations such as driving a car, but it also gives magicians an opening to exploit.

(A fuller report of the research by Kuhn and Land is in Current Biology).

While this phenomenon is about seeing something which isn't there, you can experience another well-studied perceptual phenomenon by watching a video on-line. Before you read any further, try to precisely count the total number of bounces of all the basketballs in this video.

If you didn't see the person in the gorilla suit walk through the middle of the scene (about 50% of test subjects don't), you have experienced "inattentional blindness," which occurs when we are strongly focused on certain things and literally do not see something else that is right in front of our eyes. This was demonstrated in the well-known experiment conducted in 1999 by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris (of which the video was a part). (An abstract is here).

What all this implies is that perhaps by consciously controlling our eye movements we can influence the reality-generating function of the brain's visual perception system (as mentioned, the real information from the eyes is there, being fed into the brain but being ignored). This would significantly change the way we are programmed to perceive reality. Concretely, what we do in Shintaido practice is to enter into a social situation - kumite or partner exercise - while simultaneously keeping a visual focus beyond the other person, beyond walls of the room or the limitations of the physical environment, and beyond the social cues that influence us to see as we are programmed to.

In a more philosophical context, it seems the very same techniques embodied in martial arts and Shintaido practice speak to seeing beyond the Maya, the veil of illusion that we mistake for reality. By looking beyond, we avoid getting caught up in the illusion of what we think we see or what we are subtly being told to see. Paradoxically, this may help us to see more clearly what is right before our eyes.

06 February 2009

Comparing the arts

Michael De-Campo wrote: "...however I'm not sure comparing the arts is that much useful."

The reason I sometimes find it useful to make some specific comparisons among martial arts (with an attitude of respect of course) is that Shintaido does not exist in a vacuum. Sometimes it's helpful to consider where Shintaido is located in the vast landscape of martial arts, meditative disciplines, health exercise, varieties of yoga etc.

At times Shintaido feels like a complex project that arrives on our doorsteps with a message "some assembly required" (and complete instructions not always supplied). There is a specific practical problem, internal to Shintaido, that I hope we in the Shintaido community can work on together: renki kumite. (I believe this exercise was introduced to the international public for the first time in 2000 at the event in Haguro, Japan.)

In some ways, this partner exercise (especially renki kumite variations 6 and 7) appears similar to T'ai Chi push-hands. Shintaido certainly has some movement principles in common with T'ai Chi, but other principles might be quite different. I feel it would be helpful to clarify the details of this exercise, and to define what we aim to learn from it. The details were not made very explicit by Aoki-sensei when he introduced it, so there is certainly room for interpretation.

Therefore I hope Shintaido practitioners of any level of experience will take a shot at answering some of these questions. I'd like to hear your opinions.

Have you ever practiced or taught renki kumite? If so, just some of the variations, or the whole process (10 parts is it?)

Generally, what do you feel are some of the goals of this exercise?

Are there some specific movement skills we should aim to learn from it?

Is it better to maintain a vertical posture throughout, or is it OK to lean, or is it desirable to lean?

How much pressure should be allowed to build up at the point of contact? (I do remember Aoki-sensei saying "Don't make it a contest of strength."

Should you sometimes try to put your partner off-balance?

How much should you accept your partner into your space? Should you to some degree deflect him/her away from your center?

Do you consider this part of the Yoki-kei (softer, nurtuing ki exercises) aspect of the Shintaido system? Can it be done with many variations of koshi (hips, pelvis) positions?

04 February 2009

Seek the center?

Unlike many martial arts, Shintaido does not always advise the practitioner to "seek the center" or to "be centered". While a T'ai Chi practitioner might try to be always in balance and centered -- near the center region of the area representing the ability to keep balance -- a Shintaido practitioner often explores the regions where s/he is out of balance or almost out of balance. The most representative and distinguishing movements of Shintaido (ageoroshi, shoko, most kaihotai movements, eiko, shintaido jump and other jumping, many of the meditation postures...) demand that the practitioner extend and reach out beyond or almost beyond the limit of keeping balance.

When you operate near the limit of the range of balance, important muscles surrounding the spine, in the lower back, and around the pelvis -- muscles related to keeping balance -- are powerfully engaged and trained. So this can have a beneficial and therapeutic effect on the spine, the root of our ability to balance ourselves vertically in this world of gravity (which weighs on us relentlessly 24/7 from the moment we're born till the day we die). It can untangle and detoxify the distortions and maladjustments imposed on our bodies by the demands of the modern "civilized" lifestyle.

At the same time, the psychological and emotional effect of operating near the limits of balance is to encourage psychological and emotional growth. The will to challenge our limitations psychically is not really separate from the process of challenging physical limitations. So an important part of Shintaido training is overcoming fear. Shintaido practice helps to develop bravery through physical challenges that push us beyond our "comfort zone" -- yet with minimal actual physical danger (in contrast to challenging adrenaline-addictive activities such as skydiving, rock climbing, walking across beds of hot coals and so on). Rather than just physical bravery, this is a more internal bravery: the bravery to handle whatever experiences are difficult for you.