Wednesday, May 16, 2007

But Does It Work?

Yes, I'll get to copyrights, but I'm still thinking about it. Besides, there's something else I want to write, and I need this up here first.

[originally posted to my newsgroup on Mon 19 Jun 2006]

This past weekend I rode over to San Francisco with another member of Eastshore Aikikai. On the way, we got to talking about Aikido on the net, me about my recently going to YouTube and looking over the Aikido videos, her about how she used to read the rec.martial-arts newsgroup.
She spoke to something I noticed on the YouTube comments, that a major theme of any public aikido discussion is whether or not aikido is “real,” i.e. whether or not it would actually be of use in a “real” fight. Moreover, she noted that this kind of question was almost entirely confined to aikido; no one seems to ask it about karate, tai kwon do, kung fu, etc.

So I’m left with two related questions, why aikido, and why not the other martial arts?

Certainly it would be a fair question to ask of any martial arts training, because that’s what it is: training. You can train a soldier to a fair-thee-well, but you won’t know how he’s going to behave in combat until he’s actually been in combat, until he’s been “blooded” in the jargon of the trade.

That’s not to say that there aren’t various methods that attempt to simulate combat in one way or another. For the military, this is “war games” or “maneuvers” of one sort or another. Such simulations can remove some of the unknowns from the equation, like snarled communications, supply disruptions, and sudden gaps in the chain of command. “The Fog of War” is a useful concept, and every time it’s different, so it’s a good idea to give the men a taste of it. But it’s not the same thing as being under fire.

In the martial arts, there are different kinds of simulation. Some arts make the transition to a sport, so you get competition, the pressure of public performance, and so forth. Unfortunately, to make a martial art into a sport, you have to have rules, otherwise it’s far too dangerous. So either you eliminate what might be considered your strongest moves—the lethal ones, in other words—or you pull the punches, as it were. You can, like in fencing or boxing, use special equipment, padding, foils with blunt tips, gloves that protect the hands (though ironically, boxing gloves make the sport less dangerous to the hands and more dangerous to the brain). But such modifications change the essence of the art; there are moves that would be insane in a real situation that are perfectly sensible ways of scoring points in a sport.

Some martial arts are almost pure kata, ritualized forms that are meant to give the student a set of well-practiced reflexes. That is pretty much the way that everything starts out; you can’t learn the language until you have the vocabulary. In those arts, the way of adding some real consequences to the training is through testing. That at least adds some personal ego involvement, which adds some real pressure to the matter.

A major reason why the “does it really work?” question occurs so often for aikido is that it often looks faked. The uke (attacker) comes at the nage (the person doing the technique), the nage does the technique, and the uke goes flying, all as pre-determined as a Wrestlemania bout. The encounter is usually pretty stylized, but the idea of “the uke is just going along with it,” misses an important point. Usually, the rolls, falls, twists and turns, etc. are there because the alternative is much worse. Yes, the guy bends his back and that makes him easy to knock down, but the alternative was an elbow in the throat. We don’t do the elbow strike, but we know it’s there.

As for the throws and all those pretty rolls and slapping falls, yeah, they don’t hurt us. But taking the fall isn’t really optional; the choice is between taking it correctly or getting hurt. I once saw a sensei yelling at his uke, “Protect yourself! Protect yourself!” Doesn’t quite jibe with the “it’s all just a fake” notion, does it?

At Aikido of Berkeley in the early 1980s, there was a student who confided to me that he’d taken up aikido because he found that guys would often try to pick fights with him in bars. He didn’t know why they did it, or even why it was guys who were, in his words, so easy to beat, but he wanted some alternative to pounding the crap out of them. Aikido gave him alternatives.

Don’t laugh, but I once used an aikido technique to take a butter knife away from a 5 year old. He was waving it around, and I was literally worried that he’d “put someone’s eye out.” So I caught his hand in a grip called kote gaeshi, twisted slightly and the knife just slid into my hand. It didn’t hurt him; that was pretty much the point, of course. But he did look awfully surprised. Sure, I was a lot bigger than he was. The outcome wasn’t in doubt. But it certainly helped that I knew exactly how to take it away from him with a minimum of force.

Occasionally, you run into someone who brings some external issues “onto the mat” as the saying goes. Once, I was performing a technique called “nikyo” (Hold your hand out as if to shake someone’s hand, then flip it over so the little finger is uppermost. Now grab that hand with your other hand, thumb on top, and try to bring the first hand’s wrist to your body, with the little finger going up to your nose—that’s nikyo). My uke straightened his arm, went down toward the ground, but tried to grab my leg, to maybe lift me off the ground. I automatically shifted my grip and brought my elbow over his in a related technique called ryokyo. Ryokyo is usually considered a knife taking technique because it is not at all kind; it takes power from hyperextending uke’s elbow. My uke forgot all about lifting my leg, since he was suddenly very concerned about not having his elbow dislocated.

I might not have done it if I’d thought about it, but then again, the point of the training is to teach your body how to do those things. Your thinking has to catch up later.

I’ve been in a number of physical fights in my life, but I’m not sure if I’d classify any of them as “real.” The vast majority of fights are about dominance in one way or another, stopping well short of serious injury, because that isn’t the point of them. In fact, they usually end when one or the other party threatens real injury. On the other hand, I have witnessed fights that were deadly serious, that would not end until someone was badly injured, dead, or the cops showed up. When someone who is used to the one sort runs into someone who is prone to the other sort, Very Bad Things can happen.

I have some confidence in my own ability to Do the Right Thing, if pressed, but also the fear that I nevertheless might fail to react properly. So whether or not aikido would aid me in a "real fight" is an open question. What I do know is that I will expend considerable effort to insure that I never get the answer to that question.

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