Category Archives: Martial Arts

Thoughts on "Self Defense"

An intro with an admitted Judo bias.

Several folks at work recently expressed some interest in taking a self defense class. I have to admit that the idea of teaching such a class definitely increased my pulse rate a bit. You see, I’ve noticed several withdrawal symptoms lately (though I bet my wife has noticed a few more). You know the typical sort of thing that comes up: I get to be a little twitchy late in the day, I always fiddle with a pen or marker, and the path to irritation is a little quicker than normal. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the extra spare tire that has gained a little too much ground over the last couple of years since the little ones arrived. My favorite local Aikido Dojo has class hours which I just can’t make on a regular basis, so what the heck … I guess I’ll teach a class myself and perhaps regain a little personal fitness in the process.

It’s a little ironic, really, because historically I’ve tended to scoff at these “Six Week Women’s Self Defense” sort of classes as being good for little more than instilling a false sense of overconfidence that can breed more trouble than it resolves. But upon reflection, with the right focus and philosophical underpinnings, a well-run class could serve as an introduction to the short, medium, and long-term benefits that can accrue (and the personal commitment, investment, and sacrifices that must underpin such gains) from even an introductory study of your own body and its relation to other people.

If you are looking for a class to help you open bigger cans of whoop-ass on people, this isn’t the one for you. This is a class about understanding what your mind and body can do today, understanding what other people’s bodies can do, how you interact with them, and how you can learn with time, dedication, and practice to master those interactions.

It is worth noting at this point that different schools of martial arts espouse a broad range of philosophies and methods to address threat, intimidation, or attack, but in each case, the philosophies and practices can be applied quite successfully across an unlimited range of situations and circumstances. The learning, balance, and timing skills acquired can be applied to learning any other sport or dance. The falling techniques can protect you whether you have been tripped by an attacker, or launch yourself off of a gnarly half-pipe, or even when hit by a car, as I have been. The techniques, tactics, and strategies surrounding how to prepare for, receive, deflect, and redirect attacks, or execute effective attacks of your own extend to verbal, social, and even business situations. The experience in pushing your body’s limits in practice and competition will help you achieve greater success in any future athletics. The philosophies and discipline that can accrue through long-term study and practice will help you in achieving any future goal.

As far as different martial philosophies go, at the highest level, I would classify them in three broad categories:

  • “Weapon” styles including fire-arms, knives, and sticks,
  • “Hard”styles such as boxing, Karate, and Tae-kwan-do that rely on strikes and kicks to do damage and incapacitate, and
  • “Soft”styles such as Judo, Ju-Jitsu, wrestling, and Aikido that rely on throws, holds, joint-locks and chokes to control an opponent without necessarily injuring them.

It is worth noting here that there are a couple of very big caveats around the necessarily part. Caveat one, is that even the introductory techniques can seriously injure anyone who has not had any training on how to fall without hitting their head, or how to submit to avoid having their elbow dislocated. (so don’t just run home and try these on your roommate, friends, or SOs)

Caveat two is that most beginners, and even intermediate practitioners, of any particular “soft” martial arts are typically only exposed to the watered-down sport-oriented aspects of many of these techniques. In Judo, for example, I have met many second-Dan black-belt holders who have never really studied anything beyond the sport competition techniques of what is a much broader martial art. (Note that earning a second-degree black belt can take the better part of 10-12 years of 3 times-per-week practice.) Part of the thinking is that only when a Judoka has achieved an appropriate skill level and control of their body, can they safely (for their partners) learn and practice these techniques, and only after acquiring sufficient mental discipline and self-control, can a judoka be trusted to NOT employ these techniques in rage or revenge, and use them only when someone’s life is truly threatened and there is no alternative. In the case of Judo, for example, it turns out that upon achieving an appropriate skill level with the right instructor, one can be guided to subtle variations of the techniques already learned and practiced over the years that change a controlling technique into a lethal one. (i.e. instead of controlling their fall to have them land with force on their back, most likely knocking the wind out of them, or have them land on their head to snap their neck vertebrae.)

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I favor the soft styles, Judo in particular. I find them more subtle, and difficult, but when mastered, more powerful and versatile. In particular, I find the softer styles more applicable throughout the complete range of possible interpersonal interactions from casual conversation all the way through full-blown bar fights, whereas it’s hard to execute a solid Karate technique to good effect without pissing someone off. The ability to use soft styles and have people not even notice is pretty amazing. The final aspect of the soft styles I love is that when mastered, they can become truly effortless. There is never an impact, or a feeling of force opposing force. It can actually look as if your opponent simply seemed to fall or fly through the air while you appeared to do very little at all. (But you did, in fact, do something very important at the very precise right time and in exactly the right direction.)

I have seen a 75-year-old Japanese man who weighed little more than 90 lbs and had advanced arthritis of the knees (his doctors didn’t even understand how he could walk) completely THRASH 20-year-old Olympic athletes, taking all comers for two hours straight, laughing and smiling the whole time, barely breaking a sweat. After studying Judo for 16 or so years, (the last three with this very incredible sensei, and competing internationally for three years), I managed to throw him ONCE. (I had to practice a particular counter-throw to his favorite technique for about six months outside of his dojo where he couldn’t see me practicing. What he did to me after that is another story… but it was worth it. ) I just checked up on him, and he is still practicing and teaching Judo today at 92 years of age.

This power is not about being faster or stronger or doing damage to people. It is about understanding and building that understanding into your body so that you can control yourself and someone else’s body without thought. Because if you have to think about what someone has done and what you should do about it, it is already too late. The thinking has to come in the learning and practice process, so that you become the fastest stimulus-response reflex possible. And it bears repeating that with control, there is no damage or hurt necessary. This, incidentally, is really the ONLY way a smaller or weaker opponent can consistently triumph over larger and stronger, and possibly even faster, opponents. For women or children looking to understand what it takes to protect themselves, I can’t think of a better option. (My 4-year-old daughter is already stoked to start Judo as soon as she turns five!)

That is what my self-defense class will be about.

Okay, that’s the philosophical mumbo jumbo part. If you have read this far, you are probably curious to know what, specifically, you will actually be doing in the class, and what you should expect to get out of it. (Many of you may have noted that my example of the acme in Judo achievement with the completely effortless technique had studied the art for more than 70 years by the time I found him.)

There are things that you will find to be almost immediately applicable, like techniques surrounding sensory awareness, standing, moving, balance, “ground” techniques, and falling, and there are techniques that will take over 30 years to master such as some of the hand throwing techniques that look so miraculous, and there is everything in between. The bottom line is that in martial arts there is really no shortcut; it just takes time and practice. You will get no more out of the study than what you put into it. People who have any experience in dance or gymnastics will find that many of the learning and balance skills acquired through those studies will place them ahead of others in the class.

Six weeks of effort will start you on the road to INTELLECTUALLY understanding some of the basic principles of awareness, basic mechanisms of movement and control, and what it might take to advance in skills. Each class will include rigorous stretching and strengthening exercises to help build a foundation for better balance and personal control, as well as begin the process of embedding some fundamental movements into muscle memory. Please keep in mind that this is a process that ultimately takes years. And while I have had a couple of students over the years use some of the “ground-work” techniques to avoid rape after only about 4 months of study, I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that they will be able to take on a mugger after a six week intro class. So keep the self-confidence in check, and practice. Hopefully, if nothing else, you will soon learn to avoid the situations where muggers hang out, or maneuver your way out of such situations gracefully without conflict. And in the process, you might get interested in the longer term commitments necessary to really managing the worst-case scenarios more effectively.

Discussions of fundamental principals surrounding movement, balance, timing, space, maximum efficiency with minimum effort, and strategies and tactics for conflict avoidance and management will include demonstrations and opportunities for individual and partnered practice.

Classes will slowly build in intensity as students become comfortable with the basics.

Sounds like fun to me!
Who else is interested?


p.s. If there is enough interest, a more detailed syllabus will follow shortly….

Leave a comment

Filed under Martial Arts

Some Nice Judo Ukemi Video

This is some nice video of a Korean Judo team demonstrating basic Judo techniques starting with Ukemi for a warm-up. It shows a wide range of skills across the team, with some of the advanced rank-holders showing decent technique. They are probably not as crisp in terms of technique as the more anal Japanese-style practitioners (some body positioning out of place, toes not pointed so power is limited, more lifting than timing…etc.) but there are great camera angles despite the hand-held aspects to show the protective power of Ukemi.

For a point of reference, judging from the relative skills demonstrated, the more advanced students in this video probably have about 10-15 years of practice under their belts (so-to-speak), while the newer students go all the way down to about 1 year or so.

Leave a comment

Filed under Martial Arts

Physics in Martial Arts: Ukemi ("Accepting Falls")

After over 30 years of studying Judo with some Karate, Tae-Kwan-Do, and Aikido thrown in from time to time, I have finally come to conclude that I have never seen a decent technical description of the physical principles surrounding the very specialized and effective techniques that martial arts have evolved over the centuries to protect people from injury when falling. Many practitioners are quite expert in the practice, and can teach the techniques quite effectively, but traditionally do not speak in any real detail on the scientific aspects. Frankly, I have found that this is a good thing, as the technical descriptions, even to MIT undergrads, have little impact on student improvement. But the study of different refinements and variations across different martial arts could be instructive. So I guess I’ll write it myself and invite comment.

In the interest of reaching the broadest possible audience, I will restrict this discourse to fundamental physical principles without any real mathematics, though possible later posts might go into specific numerical examples. In order to understand this discussion, readers should be, or make themselves, familiar with the basic physics surrounding velocity, acceleration, linear and angular momentum (and conservation thereof), work, energy (kinetic and potential), impulse, pressure, levers and leverage, springs, and collisions.

The very name Ukemi is often mistranslated as falling. A more correct translation takes into account the etymology of the root word Uke, or receiver. In Judo ( The Art or Way of Gentleness ) techniques are generally executed by Tori or the Giver and taken by the receiver, Uke. In that sense, a person who receives a technique must accept, and protect themselves from any attack or incident. The fundamental precept of Judo is: Maximum efficiency with minimum effort, for the mutual welfare and benefit of all. So the techniques surrounding the receipt of any technique is never to meet force with a directly opposing force, but rather to go with the incoming force, accept its energy to move in concert with it, and then deflect it in a more useful direction without harm to either party. By extension, Ukemi extends these same principles to protect a person physically from even brutal impacts with the ground. The basic goal, of course, is to be able to fall without injury, even under extreme conditions otherwise out of a person’s control.

The efficacy of these techniques is truly awesome. They are, by far, the most useful and often-used aspects derived from my many years of martial arts training, and have helped me survive some potentially serious injuries. One particular incident comes to mind from when I was about 12 or 13 years old, with around 6 years of Judo training behind me at that point, when I was pushed off of a 3-meter diving board head first onto the concrete pool deck. You know, one of those “saved your life” kind of jokes gone bad. Net result was a slight road rash on one shoulder, but the look on the guy’s face when I just dove of the board and rolled to my feet was priceless. Other examples in sports, and on Ithaca, NY ice are just too numerous to count. I just have absolutely no fear of falling anymore, and that is a very empowering thing.

The basic principals that can be used to describe the minute refinements that give Judo Ukemi its incredible protective power turn out to cover a very wide range of mechanisms.

  1. The area of the body impacting the ground in the instant when sensitive body parts strike is maximized in order to minimize the absolute force felt by any one part of the body.

  2. The duration of impact is maximized, so that the momentary impulse or force felt at any one instant is minimized.

  3. Tensioned, but not stiff or locked, muscles are used as springs, to absorb kinetic energy and dissipate it harmlessly, giving, but not breaking.

  4. The extension of arms and legs, and even bending of the waist are actively controlled so as to change the angular moments of inertia and thereby vary the rate of rotation of the body and guarantee a landing on a soft part of the body, just as a cat gyrates to land on its feet.

  5. The limbs are used to do work, and thereby affect relative rotational and linear velocities so that the body lands in a safe position.

  6. The Body is bent into wheel-like shapes in order to convert linear momentum in a fall, to controlled angular momentum of the body rolling along the ground in a wheel-shape, until the flexible muscles dissipate the energy of the fall with little or no actual impact.

  7. The limbs and joint angles are actively positioned so that no hard bones or joints (skull, knee, elbow, ankle bone, wrist bones) can possibly impact the ground directly, and so that no part of the body can be driven to strike another part of the body (as in one leg crossed over the other to slam together).

  8. The head is tucked, chin towards chest, and inside the circle of arms to protect it from any impact.

  9. The breath is exhaled smoothly and continuously (traditionally in a Kiai or shout, translated more literally as an expression of energy or self ) so that upon impact there is no sharp increase in blood pressure from the closed bag of water (your body) hitting the ground. (which in specially hard falls, can cause a person to black-out.)

  10. Fingers and toes are held together so that in a unit they are stronger than individual fingers that can catch on things and break.

  11. Any contact with the ground, or an attacker that exists at the beginning of a fall or throw, even if Uke is very off-balance, is used as something to push against in order to alter the body’s trajectory towards a safer landing position.

Part 2 will begin by describing how each of these principals is applied to Mai Mawari Ukemi, or the receipt of Forward-rolling-falls.

If you would like to see some excellent examples of all types of Ukemi in action, check out this video.

1 Comment

Filed under Martial Arts, Physics

The Difference Between Judo and Aikido Ukemi

The Difference Between Judo and Aikido Ukemi

Here is a nice demonstration of the classic Aikido form of Ukemi. Let me begin my comments with an admission that I am clearly biased, with over 30 years of Judo practice and only about 2 years of cumulative Aikido experience. That said, I have found the precise application of the Judo style to be more protective than that of Aikido. I have observed two fundamental differences, each of which is highlighted by comparing the various demo videos posted on this site.

First of all, the Aikido version has Uke tuck the off-direction leg under the other closer to the buttocks. This has the effect of somewhat facilitating a roll to a standing position, but it fails to protect either the ankle bone, or one leg from impacting the other upon significant impacts. This leg tuck also has the effect of decreasing the angular moment of inertia, and can do nothing to slow the rate of rotation and thus better control the landing position.

The other fundamental difference is that the Aikido style seems to rely on being relatively in control of the fall from the beginning with more use of hands for gentling the falls than does the Judo variation. Ultimately, I have found that the Judo techniques can protect a body from a wider range of falling situations that start out farther from control.

Those very minor details aside, it is clear that the fundamental principles are very similar, and it is very possible that there are larger differences from instructor to instructor than between the two arts.

1 Comment

Filed under Martial Arts