Friday, 27 March 2015

Yoshin

I hope to keep today’s post short.  Who knows how that is going to go?!  Before I start, I write this article light heartedly, though it may sound like a bit of a rant.  If it does, it’s not, think of me laughing whilst typing.

A number of years ago I was in the hombu and I remember Sensei Obata took the time to take me to one side and told me about this one kanji he had hanging on his wall.  The kanji he explained was of “yoshin’.  This kanji had been sent to him, from Japan, by one of his old teachers.  The meaning he explained was very important.

Yoshin he explained essentially relates to the idea of, how far can I go before I give up.  In combat, or a fight, often the person who wants to win the most, is the person who does.  It becomes very interesting that it’s most simplistic, combat is often won by the person who wants to win the most rather than the person who has the best technique.

Sensei explained to me, in the dojo, when he was an uchi-dachi, they would often run classes where the desire was to absolutely destroy yourselves.  These types of classes were designed to break you down to make you realise just how far you could go.  All these years later I continue to find this idea rather fascinating when reading the diaries of prisons of war.  Many recount how they would live off virtually nothing and be torchered all day and yet still survive.  The key point they would often recount is that they themselves were surprised at just how far they could go.

The act of learning yoshin becomes interesting for me.  My grandfather used to have a saying, “you have plenty of time to rest when you die”.  At his mid 80s he still gardens daily and goes out for 4 hours drivers at a time (and not at a slow speed either).  His vitality is in itself fascinating to me.  He would explain to me, life is short, live an action filled life.

It is perhaps with these two role models in mind that I have always strived to full every opportunity in my life.  I am still trying to find where my limits lie and I am perhaps famous for filling my time up to overfilling capacity.  It is this attitude, I would say, that has helped me gain 5 black belts, 3 degrees and 2 professional qualifications before I was even 30!

As I’m now getting older I begin to wonder what is up with the younger generation.  Do they not have the same role models to learn off as I did?  To explain, often students call in and tell me that they are unable to attend class, often for various reasons.  One year one student went through 51 weeks of excuses, a total of 102 excuses over the year - attending one week out of the whole year!  At the end of the year our analysis of the excuses revealed that the person had an injury to nearly every body part (more than once), had moved house 4 times, 4 grandmothers had died (don’t you just have the two?!) and a host of other drivel.

I remember being a kid and hearing a story from my then Karate teacher.  He told me that one year, when he was a kid, he went to Japan to train but broke his big toe in the first week.  Rather than miss out he trained on a broken toe through out the rest of his time there.  This never really made much of an impression on me until I was much older, abroad in the hombu dojo and suffering my own injuries.  Like my Karate teacher, I resolved to just put up with it rather than miss out.

The above story some times make me chuckle when I get calls saying, I’ve stubbed a toe, got a cold, have a headache and as a consequence cannot attend class tonight.  Did you know that England apparently has the weakest necks in Europe because of our whiplash motor claims compensation culture (search Google to verify).  Perhaps we should add to that, the least able to deal with minor afflictions.  I say this very light heartedly as I believe that the British are in reality some of the toughed SOBs in the world.  How do I know this?  Because we conquered half the planet at some point.  I am proof of that, being from the colonies!  So is this perhaps a cultural shift afflicting the young only?

Of equal propensity is the surprise I get when some tell me, I’ve just got in from work and can’t come to tonight as I’m tied, or I have an exam/assignment and am unable to make class tonight.  Now I am by no way shape or form advocating that anyone mess up exams for class.   That would clearly highlight an issue with priorities, which I could not agree with.  I do however sometimes wonder how so many are able to cope with so little.  When I was in university, studying full time, I also worked full time.  When I was studying my masters degree full time I also worked, ran all my classes, planned a wedding and an international Shinkendo seminar - all at the same time.  Yeah, it was tough, but I got through it and it taught me that doing all that was still not my limit.

At this stage in my life I am still learning my yoshin.  Last year I lost someone dear to me and it made me realise, life is short.  All of a sudden I didn't feel so young anymore and it made me think, how much time do I have left.  This year, I myself, have been ill for nearly 3 months and am only now just recovering.  One thing all this has taught me is, live a filled life and use up every second of your time.  Understand your limits before you die.  Know that at the end I could not have lived a more actioned packed life than I have, I’ve never made excuses and I’ve done far more with my time than others.  Isn’t it funny how much Sensei Obata and my grandfather truly knew.  They all tried to tell me - if only I had listened to them earlier, how much more could I have accomplished?

Having a son, who one day will sit back and look at my life critically, one of the things that drives me now is, if I expect my son to do better than me (a desire of every father) then I’ve got to set the standard really high.  All I can do is aim high, live a filled life and continue to discover my breaking point.  Once I’ve discovered it, I need to conquer it and raise that bar again.  In doing that hopefully one day that bar will be set super high, and in the act of exceeding me hopefully my son will achieve something great.  In a way I think this is exactly what my role models did for me.  I often feel it is my duty to pay that forward and so I attempt to continue to do so.  I would challenge the rest of you to join me in this pursuit as hopefully together we can all edge each other forward.

Monday, 2 March 2015

ISF Membership

For those of you in the know, you may be aware that this year marks 10 years of International Shinkendo Federation (ISF) membership for me.  Yes, thats 10 years of Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu with Sensei Obata.  

I started my martial arts career many years ago in Shotokan Karate, as part the Japanese Karate Association (JKA).   Later I trained Tomiki Aikido as part of the British Aikido Association (BAA).  Through my experiences I have come to realise, in contrast to the convention, that key membership to the mother body is of central importance.  I aim, this month, to attempt to put my thoughts on this matter to paper.

I will begin by offering a theoretical case study.  Let’s imagine that you’re in need of a doctor.  Who do you feel more comfortable with?

Option A)
-  A doctor who went to Harvard, studied full time and obtained a good quality medical degree
-  A doctor who learnt from, and studied with, the most well known doctors in his profession
-  A doctor who is currently certified and continues to be certified with an established medical association

Option B)
-  A doctor who went to University of Nowhere, studied part time and obtained a medical degree of some various quality
-  A doctor who learnt questionable practices, and studied with, people no one has ever heard of
-  A doctor who is currently certified and continues to be certified with a dubious association, perhaps one of his own creation

Let us remember firstly that doctor A and B may be just as good as each other.  A good university and trade association is not a guarantor of quality, but it sure as hell is a good start when installing consumer confidence in others. 

Considering then - a good trade association.  Being a member of a good association offers something tangible, i.e. they set your professional standards & behaviours, they accredit individuals to acceptable levels of professionalism and offer competency guidelines.  All this is done to promote confidence, to the public, of the practitioner in question and the trade that they practice.

Another thing associations do for its members is ensure that they carry out appropriate CPD (continual professional development).  This is done to ensure that the practitioners knowledge doesn’t become stagnant and out of date.  It likewise ensures that current practices are disseminated and past practices, that have fallen out of use, are no longer employed.  The quantity and quality of CPD is typically pre-set with a specified quantity required in order to renew licences at year end.

One of my students recently asked me, if I went to Japan what would the teachers over there think of me and the martial arts that I practice.  The reality is that they probably have a passing knowledge of Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu – nothing in-depth.  However, they all know and acknowledge the prowess of Sensei Obata.  Which brings me onto the second point, the fame and acclaim of the teachers you align with.

So what would they make of the student?  Well they’d probably be more than happy to accept them, as a guest, because they’re affiliated with Sensei Obata.  That is what affiliation with his name brings.  Contrast this with Sensei X, who no one knows.  The same result is unlikely to occur.  Rather in contrast, you’d probably be expected to don a white belt and start from scratch until you can prove otherwise.  That is after all expected given the constant rise of McDojos.

I have written in the past about my thoughts of the Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu schools of martial arts so I don't plan to rehash these arguments here.  Instead I will summarise my past thoughts by saying, I consider Sensei Obata’s schools to be of an ivy league standard.

You may now be questioning how all this fits in with martial arts, but to me there is a direct synergy.  For a start, martial arts practitioners offer a fully functioning, and healthy body (in some instances) to another to use and practice with.  That other person is then trusted not to damage or wreck that body.  Of course mistakes may occasionally happen, as they do with Harvard educated Medical Doctors, but the reality is that because a good foundation has been installed in them, at the start of their education, mistakes tend to occur considerably less than they otherwise would.  That is, after all, why so many are prepared to pay large sums of money for these doctors.  The quality of your starting school has a direct correlation to the levels of the competency and quality of practice that the practitioner may later demonstrate.  That is why students of ivy league schools are so well sought after.

Likewise, as with trade associations, martial arts associations set standards.  They accredit students to a pre-set level of competency.  Ability is acknowledged by students meeting a pre-set syllabus of requirements, which is set independently.  This is, itself, important given that a lot of what we do cannot be tested fully safely in the dojo and out of it.  These associations also offer points of escalation, i.e. if you find something difficult to deal with you can refer to the headquarters and request advice.  They also offer ways to deal with disputes between members, where these inevitably arise.

In martial arts, I have over the years found the trade to be a highly political environment.  Arguments and disputes are common practice with many leading to fall outs and break ups, which in some instances have led whole associations to split up.  In these instances points of escalation are vitally important to ensure vitality.

Being a member of a martial arts association offers the ability to train to a set standard of professionalism.  If you go anywhere in the world you should theoretically experience Shinkendo classes in the same fashion, with techniques being taught identically, e.g. Happogiri is the same the world over!  Likewise, should you wish to attend a branch organisation, who are appropriately affiliated, you would be offered direct access.  In terms of CPD (continual development), if you wanted to attend a seminar or training weekend with a foreign instructor, such as Obata Sensei, your membership and licences are your passport to this right.

A key feature of all of the above should now begins to stand out.  Like trade associations the point in question is, professionalism.  My career to date has made me feel that I fit into option A.   To explain:  I studied at a good school (the honbu), with a well-known teacher (Sensei Obata) and I belong to the International Shinkendo Federation (with over 100 branch dojos the world over, with dojos on every continent in the world).  I continue to get my annual CPD through constant practice with our association heads (Obata Sensei and Yukishiro Soke).  Because of this I feel that as a professional instructor I am doing all the right things.


At this time of year, when your annual memberships are due, I’d welcome you to reflect on this and think about my sentiments.  Like any good doctor, the day he decides he no longer wants to be accredited to the British Medical Association (their governing body) is the day he should cease to be a doctor (a current legal requirement coincidentally).  I am proud of my affiliated association, the ISF, and the teachers who teach as part of it.  Because of this should I ever see the day that I decide to resign my membership I pledge to act like any good doctor would and resign from martial arts full stop as a consequence of my decision.