Internals: Introduction: The Story Thus Far


I’ve never did fight much as a kid. I stayed away from the regular boyhood rough-and-tumble, and was too big to get bullied. Instead, I ran around the woods with my friends swinging sticks around and playing and sword fighting. The martial arts have never been about self-defense for me.

I wrestled in high school until I tore up a shoulder, then dabbled in judo, fencing, and taiji, before joining a modern-wushu school in college. I wasn’t very good at wushu–large awkward white men are not meant to fly–but it was fun and I had a passionate teacher. His school closed down a few years later; looking for a similar style, I ended up at a commercial kung-fu school. I enjoyed the workouts, but there was little depth. I became very frustrated that the teacher was more focused on running a business that training martial artists.

When I moved to San Francisco, I determined to find the right teacher rather than the right style. I knew nothing about Japanese arts, but Yachigusa-Ryu was completely uncommercial with a teacher, Gary Moro (see the masthead) who tolerated no B.S. And Gary had a little bit of magic.

That magic is aiki. The magic is being manipulated and thrown in ways that do not seem possible–until you find yourself on the floor.

Over the years, none of us students found that magic for ourselves. We could do the occasional aiki technique in slow motion (with a patient partner), but we never “got it.” We knew what we were missing–receiving it from Gary day-to-day, and feeling higher-level aiki at the occasional seminar–but it remained missing.

I never could figure out whether we were not being trained the right way–we certainly were not being trained the old-school way Gary had been–or whether aiki cannot be taught. It might be that, as the saying goes, one needs to “steal” the art for themselves.

As a beginner, I focused on sword training and basic jujutsu for a number of years and did not worry too much about aiki. I spent countless hours practicing drills: swinging a bokken and crawling around the mat on my knees. I also practiced kyudo (Japanese archery) on the side, bringing the patience and posture of that into my sword-work.

As time went on, I became increasingly frustrated that I still could not grasp aiki. I was missing a fundamental part of our art, and felt like my practice was going nowhere. I showed up, and trained as much as ever, but I felt stuck.

Then, I was hit by car while bicycling. I shattered my left navicular bone–the keystone of the foot’s arch. I was on crutches for five months and still, almost four years later, every step is painful.


I took two years completely off from training after the accident. Then I came back very slowly and gingerly, showing up once a week and not participating in much of the class. I only practiced very soft techniques in slow motion. Oddly, those techniques were working much better than before the accident.

I’ve heard it said many times that being injured can make you better, because you cannot use strength as a crutch (so to speak). It was really true; the weaker I acted, the better I was. I would repeat to myself as a mantra “I am a weak old man” before each technique, and it worked wonders.

One day, when working on staff (jo) disarms, I idly decided to “move like taiji” and see what happened. My opponent then crumpled up like a tin-foil ball when I grabbed his staff. It was an amazing feeling, and I had absolutely no idea what I had done.

I spent the next few months at class trying to recreate that feeling, without trying to analyze it or break it down. I was chasing a ghost, and was afraid that if I looked straight at it, it would fade out of sight. Over time, I was able to recreate that feeling in a number of different techniques. Often I could get a good kuzushi (unbalancing) on initial contact, but I was rarely able to finish a throw.


When I did try to understand what I had been doing, I did not have much knowledge to work with: scattered bits of martial lore about “connection” and “grounding” and some leads from reading arguments on AikiWeb forums. There were books to tell me what I was missing (e.g. Hidden in Plain Sight and Transparent Power) but little to explain what I was finding.

I could only get so far with the partial and contradictory information I found. But many sources agreed that solo training was key to developing internals, and some suggested practicing cuts with a weighted training sword. I might have had no clue about internals, but I did understand sword drills.

So, I started a daily practice of swinging a five-pound sword a thousand times. I tried to do it slowly and with the same sort of “feeling” I’d been working on in class. After a few weeks, I started to develop a sense of “connection” from this. I was able to take the feeling I got from the solo practice and bring it back to being more connected in my jujutsu.

I felt a sense of connection from my rear foot, across my back, to my hands so that the sword felt pushed from the ground. While I did not understand the connection, I could observe how it would break if I moved my joints out of line, allowing me to get a feel for what the right alignment was. I studied the anatomy of bones and joints to see what I was doing, and developed some understanding of how a push could be balanced across joints without tension in the muscles (e.g. sinking the shoulder down and forward allows force to transmit along the collarbone to the sternum).

This bone-alignment model was helpful, but left me completely unable to connect across the soft tissue of my center. I had found a bunch of pieces of the puzzle, but had no idea how to put them together.


The thousand-swing regime was abruptly ended last fall after I went to a seminar with Dan Harden. He taught a theoretical framework of how internals are approached and a few basic exercises to develop connections. Following these ideas, I started focusing on doing simple qigong-like exercises to find and develop connections.

The content of that seminar gave me new perspectives to understand what I had been working on–some of them anatomical, and some esoteric. While most of the ideas flew over my head (and I didn’t learn any of the exercises correctly) enough stuck that I could move forward my knowledge on my own.

The most concrete idea I took away was that muscles can serially pull on each other to create integrated head-to-toe lines of pull. I devoured a Western alternative-medicine book, “Anatomy Trains,” that expounded on this idea and ran with it. While taoism-derived esoteric stuff was unintelligible to me, anatomy was something I could understand.

I became obsessed with trying to feel what sequences of muscles I was firing when I did “connected movement,” switching back and forth between studying anatomy to get new ideas and then feeling where my muscles were tensing as my body moved in certain ways. I would then try my ideas out in class, getting a reality check by seeing what worked to push and throw, and what did not.

This work was vary empirical; I had no overarching theory but I found a number of pathways by trial-and-error that I could control by creating specific types of tension in my abdomen. The feeling of being able to truly move from center was profound. What I was doing was very different from standard internal training, but I was feeling something special and kept following that feeling.


At the beginning of this Summer, I once again threw out all my notes and started fresh after going to a follow-up seminar. The second time around, I was better prepared to understand the lessons. It quickly became clear just how how far off the beaten path I had wandered. My training had not necessarily been wrong, but it very much had a different focus. So, after the seminar I started with basic drills again, trying to feel connection and alignment.

At the same time, another alternative-anatomy book, Luigi Stecco’s “Facial Manipulation”, opened my eyes to a number of new ideas on body mechanics.

Putting all these pieces together, I felt how to break movement down into simple components and then link those together into circular sequences. I just worked simple drills to feel and burn in these movements.

I then finally started digging into esoteric Taoist/qigong/neigong practices, once I could see how my training was connected to some of their ideas. I never expected that I would start doing qigong, given its flaky reputation. While I did want to seek qi (aka, chi or ki), it seems that it found me.

And here I will leave it, to go train some more.

Day One

I arrived at my teacher’s home right after school, excited about this opportunity to learn martial arts. I was finally going to learn all those wonderful things I had seen in the movie “You Only Live Twice.” Little did I know how wrong I was.

On my arrival, I was told to complete my homework before we could begin, which I hastily did. I was then shown where I could change clothes, and where I was required to wait until the class began.

Soon after, my teacher’s daughter entered the room and started showing me the proper etiquette I would be required to know if I was going to continue training with her father. Bor-r-r-ing!

That’s not why I was here. I was here to learn to fight with swords and flip bad guys over my shoulder, just like in the movie (keep in mind I was eleven years old with no real knowledge about the martial arts or Japanese culture).

Okay: bow like this; sit like that; don’t do this; keep quiet and do as your told. Got It! Can we please start now? No. When will this girl ever stop talking? What do you mean I did it wrong? I did it just like you said I was supposed to. Really, I have to do it again? All these thoughts ran through my head. I certainly never said them out loud, but I’m sure my body language and facial expressions told her exactly how I was feeling.

Finally, after what seemed like an endless amount of wasted time, the order came that class was starting. I rushed into the garage, eager for my first lesson.

The Interview

After we bowed in and did some breathing/meditation exercises, sensei Yachigusa called me to the front of the class, where I sat and waited. I can not quite describe his look, as he looked me over, but it sure was not one that made me feel welcomed. I remember feeling quite nervous as he scanned me.

After a few minutes, he “growled” something in Japanese; within a few seconds his daughter brought him a teapot and two cups. One cup was placed in front of him, and the other in front of me. My teacher then poured some tea into my cup, and made a gesture to drink.

This was the first time I had ever had green tea, and I didn’t like it. It was so bitter that all I could do was to take a sip before placing the cup back on the floor. Once again he gestured to drink it, and following his lead I gulped it down.
He then poured me another cupful, though I’m positive he knew I didn’t like the taste. I swallowed it anyway.

“What’s your name again?” my teacher asked. “Gary,” I said. “Gary?” he said with a very heavy Japanese accent. “Yes sir,” I replied, not even sure whether he had actually said my name at all; I could barely understand him.

“You train hard, yes?” he inquired. “Yes sir,” I responded. There was silence, as he scanned me over again as if trying to determine if I meant what I said.

“You behave, yes?’ he asked. “Yes sir, ” I replied, thinking he meant I would behave in class. What he was really asking is if I was a troublemaker, if I was “good boy” or not.

“Your parents let you train?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I lied. The truth is my mother had no clue what I was up to. She just thought I was visiting a friend. Looking back, chances are she would have let me do it since she was very supportive of my interests, but at the time I didn’t want to take the chance she would say no.

By this point I started feeling fidgety, and was sweating because of the hot tea. Also, my legs were also cramping up because I wasn’t used to kneeling in seiza (formal sitting posture).

I’m sure he was aware of my discomfort, but he poured me another cup of tea and continued his inquiry.

“You like jujutsu?” he asked. I remained silent since I didn’t know what “jujutsu” meant. Figuring that any answer was better than none I blurted out, “I like judo,” remembering that was one of the arts demonstrated in the movie “You Only Live Twice. “NO JU….DO here, just jujutsu” he responded. There was that word again. What was he talking about?

He poured me another cup of tea.

Then he took a different approach. “You like (pointing at the sword behind him),” he asked. “Yes sir,” I answered, “very much.” “Honto” he remarked (he may have actually said, wakarimasu (I understand), but honto (really) is what I think he meant).

“So, you like to fight?” he asked. “No sir I don’t,” I replied, which was the truth. I had only been in one fight during my entire life to that point.

More silence as he scanned me again. “You train hard, yes?” he asked again. “Yes sir,” I responded now hoping this would end the interview so I could get up and move my legs, which were now in agony.

“Good, let’s get started. Move over there,” he said as he nudged me towards the direction I was suppose to go.

Lesson 1

Wobbling to the backyard of his home, I followed him to a pile of firewood. He pointed to one piece, gesturing me to pick it up. He then pointed to a table, gesturing me to put the wood on it. I had no idea why I was doing this, but I did exactly what I was told. Little did I know that “Loggy”–the name I would eventually give to that piece of wood–would become a major element of my early years of training.

After the log was placed on the table he covered it with a folded towel, and then out of nowhere he punched the log with his fist. His movement surprised the hell out of me, as did his kiai (battle cry).

“You do,” I was told. I just stared blankly. “Hit it!” he commanded. I hit the log. Ouch, that really hurt.

“Again” he commanded. “Again?” I thought, can’t he see my hand hurts.

“Hit it now,” he command, clearly already losing patience with this kid he didn’t even really want to teach. Startled by his tone I hit the log. But I hit it too slowly and without enough power.

“NO!” he yelled, as he forcibly grabbed my hand and struck it against the log. Now I was really in pain.

“Again” he commanded; and though my hand was hurting I hit the log as hard as I could muster. I did it over and over again, until he told me to stop. I had never felt pain like this ever before. And if it hadn’t been for the towel, my knuckles would have been a bloody mess that day.

Without even giving me a hint that he thought that I had done a good job, or even that I had at least tried my best, we were off to the next exercise.

This time I was shown a pile of sand, and instructed to move the pile from where it was to the other side of the garden. Okay, no problem, this would be easy. I grabbed the shovel and bucket next to the pile and started shoveling sand.

“NO!!!!!” he yelled. “Not like that, like this.” He then proceed to pick up two handfuls of sand, walk to the other side of the yard, and drop it. “Do it,” he commanded. And I did.

Needless to say, my hands were already so sore form hitting the log that grabbing handfuls of sand was very hard. It didn’t take long before my hands were cramped up so badly that I could barely keep a handful in them. But I didn’t stop, even when he wasn’t watching.

Handful after handful, I did this exercise for over a half a hour.

“Yame” (stop), he ordered. He then inspected my hands, muttering, “no good, no good,” as he pointed to the two lower fingers of my fist, which were bruised. That was my first correction regarding technique, though in truth, I didn’t have a clue what he meant.

After a short water break, class continued.

The next thing I was taught was a sequence of transitions I can only describe as a kata (solo form). It had nothing to do with fighting. There were no block, punches or kicks, but it was simple to see it would improve balance and strengthen the legs.

No explanation was given about what the movements were for, nor were the movements broken down. It was simply a case of monkey see, monkey do. I have to say, it was pretty impressive to see my sensei, a man already in his 70’s, do this form over and over, apparently without any effort. He made it look easy, and I remember telling myself that if he could do it so could I.

Little did I know that day, but these movements would form the core of actual techniques later on.  Basically, the first six movements were:

  1. From standing upright: move right leg to the right; exhale and squat; exhale again and hold squat; ichi, ni, san, shi,…ju (count to ten); inhale, rise to starting position.
  2. Move right leg back (long stance); do lunge; return to staring position.
  3. Move right leg to the right; exhale, drop down do side lunge; hold lunge; inhale, rise and return to starting position.
  4. Extend right foot forward; exhale, drop butt almost to the ground; hold position; inhale, rise and return to staring position.
  5. Do seiza (formal sitting); rise to kneel, stepping off line; return to seiza; rise to starting position.
  6. Do seiza; rotate body off center line (my students know this movement as a kneeling evasion); return to starting position; repeat to left.

Being youthful, and pretty flexible none of these movements were beyond my ability to imitate, except for number four. I’m not saying they were easy, or I did them right, or that I never lost my balance and fell, but I felt pretty successful with my performance when we were done one hour later.

I have no idea what my teacher thought though. There were never any words of encouragement, and all the corrections were physical: a tug here, a pull there, a kick to widen the legs, and so on. But whatever he thought it didn’t matter at the moment.

By this point, over one and a half hours had passed. My hands were killing me, and the muscles in my legs were exhausted. Part of me was ready to quit and go home. I was also upset that we hadn’t done anything related to what I had seen in the movie, which was why I was there. When would we start doing that, I wondered? But it would be years before that would happen.

I wanted to ask questions, lots of questions; but remembering his daughter’s instructions, I did not.

The final phase of training for that first day was my introduction to ukemi, (receiving techniques, see Training via Osmosis). This wasn’t the ukemi most martial artists are familiar with, where one learns to fall. It was mostly just me serving as a punching bag.

Without receiving any warnings about what was about to happen, instructions on how to fall, or even how to indicate that I was in pain, I was told to punch my teacher’s son as hard as could.

But wait, he was my friend. There was no way I could hit him for real. My first punch was some lame attempt, that stopped short of ever touching him.

SMACK! Out of nowhere my teacher struck my arm. “No,” he snapped, “punch hard.” So I did.

Now I have no idea what my teacher’s son did to me, since it had happened so fast. All I knew was that I was on the ground. I was in pain. Now everything hurt.

“Punch again” he commanded, as I picked myself up from the floor. Against my better judgment I did, though a lot more cautiously. SMACK! My teacher hit me again. “No,” he yelled, “real punch.”

So I punched. Over and over again. The results were always the same. I ended up on the floor without really knowing how I had gotten there.

Of course, the more I was tossed around the more I became frustrated. Soon I was losing my temper. Now I really did want to hit my friend, just to get even. But as I hard as I tried, I only nicked him once, and even that wasn’t enough to stop him from throwing me to the ground over and over again.

Certainly, my teacher witnessed me losing my temper, but he never intervened. He remained expressionless, only breaking his silence to order me to punch again.

“Yamate,” my teacher finally yelled–a word that had no meaning to me at the time. “Class is over.”

Thank God I thought. It had been over two hours of hell.

We lined up, did a few more breathing exercises, and then bowed. Then, just at like the beginning of class, he gestured me to come forward and take a seat. Even before my butt hit the floor, his daughter arrived with another teapot. “Please, not more tea,” I thought to myself.

But it wasn’t tea. Instead it was something with an terrible odor I could not describe. “YUCK! I’m going to have to drink that now?” I said to myself, “No way.”

Fortunately, this foul-smelling liquid wasn’t for drinking. Within a few minutes, he was rubbing it all over my hands. The coolness of the liquid felt great, but the rubbing was almost unbearable. He didn’t seem to care.

“You like class?” he asked me. I didn’t know how to answer him; I was conflicted. I was physically and mentally worn out, and clearly had been pushed past my limit. Yet, part of me still wanted to learn. I was stubborn and did not want to be a quitter, so I answered, “yes sir.”

Once again there was silence, as he scanned me, not quite sure if he should believe me or not. “You’re sure?,” he asked. “Yes sir,” I responded, still trying to convince myself that I meant it.

“Good. Tomorrow you start real training” he said.

What!? Real training? What do you call what we did today?

After Class

As I rode the bus home, and my muscles started to stiffen, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. It certainly was not what I had expected, and I hadn’t been taught anything even remotely similar to what I had seen in the movie.

More importantly, I could not stop thinking about what he could have meant when he said “real training” would start tomorrow. Things had felt pretty real today. My mind was a whirlwind of thoughts, and I debated the pros and cons of attending another class.

Clearly, I felt that my first class, which was over two hours long hadn’t taught me anything. What’s the use in hitting a log and carrying sand? And that silly kata, what was the point? Worse yet, I was still really angry about getting beaten up by his son. And then there was the pain, that wasn’t enjoyable either.

Surely, there were more reasons to quit, than go back.

Looking back, I have no idea why I returned the next day; but I did. As I tell everyone now, I was just a dumb kid, who didn’t know anything about martial arts, and assumed this was how everybody did it. If they could, I could.

Furthermore, I had told sensei Yachigusa I would be there, and I wasn’t a liar (well, except for the part about my mother allowing me to train).

So I did return. And I returned the day after, and the next, and for next ten and a half years, until my sensei left San Francisco to go home to Japan.

This year will be 40th anniversary of that first day.

Training Via Osmosis

Currently I am re-reading a book titled “Hidden In Plain Sight,” by Ellis Amdur. It’s a book about the roots of Morihei Ueshiba’s power, that covers a lot of the history of Daito Ryu and Ueshiba’s development of Aikido.

It’s a very interesting book, written by a true scholar. Although many of the names and martial styles are unfamiliar to me, it has been very informative. The book has, without a doubt, made me see Aikido–at least Aikido as Ueshiba taught it–in a different light.

However, that’s not what I’m here to write about.

In chapter four, “Aikido Is Three Peaches,: Mr Amdur writes:

“A considerable amount of skill, however, can be acquired by the innately talented simply by osmosis. The act of taking ukemi from a teacher who really puts the student through his paces will teach the student some of the body skills without him knowing, really, that he has reworked his body structure. For example, if tested physically with more and more severity, one begins to “instinctively” learn ways of breathing best suited to taking a blow or a fall. This learning by osmosis is further enhanced when one attempts to throw or counter that teacher. Without explicit instructions, one will not learn all or even most of the skills that are possible for a human being to acquire – but one can learn enough to stand out within not only the aikido world, but even in the larger world of martial arts.”

Unlike the common translation of the word ukemi, which most people use to describe falling techniques, Mr. Amdur uses ukemi more literally to refer to a concept of “receiving body.”

Per Mr. Amdur: “Properly understood, ukemi is the mastery of force – the act of absorbing and redirecting energy, and even adding one’s own power and sending it back to the attacker.”

His assertion, and I agree with it, is that ukemi is not just about falling. It’s about learning to “FEEL.”

Learning to “feel,” and using those feelings constructively was something I wasn’t taught. Or at least I wasn’t taught explicitly. But perhaps the ways I made various discoveries related to self-preservation were a direct result of the how my early training was conducted. I took a lot, I mean a lot, of ukemi–ukemi that I was in no way, shape or form prepared or trained to take.

Before reading Mr. Amdur’s book I had always just accepted the fact that I had been the victim of a half-crazed Japanese man who had it in for me. Now I have to consider an alternative possibility; perhaps he was actually looking out for my best interest, and taught me in the best manner he knew how.

In either case, the end result was the same: he forced me to learn things on my own by taking ukemi. By Osmosis!

Lesson 1 – Pain Avoidance

Anyone who has ever read, or listened to, stories about the way I was taught will be aware that for my first three years of training, I was little more than a punching bag for my teacher’s son. I routinely had the crap beaten out of me.

Training was often harsh. While I like to believe that my teacher had no real intention to permanently injure me, I frequently went home with bruises, welts, abrasions, cuts, and sprains. It was a good day was when I only felt exhausted.

Complicating matters, my mother who had no knowledge about the martial arts, and if she had have seen these injuries she would have made me quit. I can still remember wearing a sweater on one of the hottest days of the year just so my mother count not see the welt marks all over my arms. “No mom I’m not hot,” I boldly protested while I quickly became drenched in my own sweat.

Since I didn’t want to be forced to quit, I had to hide my injuries. This meant that I rarely if ever received any professional medical treatment. Occasionally, I could blame these injuries on sports I was involved in. But in most cases, I either treated my injuries on my own, accepted the occasional first aid my teacher offered (usually some stinky liquid that was rubbed on, some foul tasting concoction, or moxa), or learned to ignore and work through the pain.

I guess what doesn’t kill you, does makes you stronger. Although, you do pay for it as you get older.

While it might seem like “lesson one” was to develop a high tolerance for pain, the real lesson that I learned–at least eventually–was how to reduce the amount of pain I was receiving.

Rather than enduring, I learned to evade, avoid, blend with, ride, or redirect the incoming force: ultimately dissipating that force such that most of the energy didn’t impact me and was at least paritally redirected towards my opponent.

Admittedly, training could still be painful. But the rate at which I was injured greatly declined.
In fairness to my instructor, he did eventually teach me techniques that involved evading, redirecting, and blending. But most of the lessons of how to actually apply such skills were self taught out of necessity during those first few years.

His intention, at least initially was clearly to leave me alone to figure things out, myself. Techniques were often done to me without any prior warning about what was going to happen. I had no time to formulate a plan for what I could do in response, or to prepare myself to fall in a certain way. I was simply told how to attack, and before I knew what was happening, I would find myself put in some painful joint lock, and/or on the ground. Often, things happened so fast, that I could not even sense how techniques were being applied to me; I knew the end result, but not the means.

Lesson 2 – Taking Falls

Another thing I had to teach myself was how to fall. Unlike most dojos, where throws and projections are a dominant element of the beginning curriculum, I was never taught Ukemi Waza (falling techniques). My teacher didn’t show me, or anyone else.

I had to teach myself how to fall, out of necessity, and for self-preservation. It was a skill I picked up very quickly, by trial and error, often without giving it much conscious thought. Granted, my falls might not have looked pretty, but they were functional.

After reading Mr. Amdur’s book, and thinking about what he wrote, I can see that not being taught how to fall was very beneficial for me. It forced me to learn to “feel” techniques and how they were being applied. It eventually taught me how to respond in a manner that not only reduced a technique’s harm, but also allowed me to counter it with little effort.

One thing I learned quite quickly, and became very good at, was to instinctively shift my center, or alter my body to counter techniques. Nowadays, I have to make a conscious effort to stop doing this when I am practicing with others, especially if I am the uke (receiver of a technique) or am working with people who do not know me well.

Of course, my teacher’s son was also aware of these methods. Often we would find ourselves in a game of counter-versus-counter-versus-counter, before we could finish the technique we were supposed to be practicing. Basically, we were sparring.

But this was sparring in a way that was acceptable to my teacher. He often encouraged such behavior, because he knew it improved our overall ability to use such techniques in the real world.

Of course, such training ingrained a habit that others often find annoying: I will not fall unless I really have to. When receiving a technique, I will not project, hurl, leap, and/or launch myself–unless my training partner makes me.

Acting too cooperatively and “faking” a fall was something my teacher would not tolerate. If he even had the slightest inkling that we were behaving in such a manner, there would be hell to pay.

“Baka da!* You make it work, or you learn how to make it work. But don’t fake it, ” he would yell (well, that’s the family-friendly version; and the real version would be accompanied by some swipes from his cane or whatever else he happened to be close at hand).

Lesson 3 – Relaxation

Have you ever heard the expression “Tension Kills?” Well it’s more than just an old saying.
Early in my training, when I knew I was about to get pummeled by some technique my teacher’s son was about to perform on me, I would become very rigid. Since I knew it was going to hurt, I would become tense. My body would lock up. Because

I wasn’t pliable and relaxed, I had to absorb the full brunt of the force.
My teacher constantly yelled at me for being “stiff,” too flat-footed, or as he said, too “heavy.” At the time, I thought “heavy” meant I was fat. I was confused since I knew I wasn’t fat; clearly whatever he was trying to teach me was lost in translation.

As time went by, I finally understood that “heavy” meant I was being stiff and rigid. I was being my own worst enemy; I wasn’t allowing myself the ability to move freely and adapt to the situation. I wasn’t relaxed.

Unfortunately, by the time I finally understand what “heavy” meant, I had already started learning how to relax on my own. I taught myself how to become pliable, how to just accept what was about to happen and “go with the flow.”

Learning to remain relaxed was probably the greatest breakthrough I made in my martial arts training in that period. It drastically changed both how I received techniques and how I applied them.

This lesson marked a transition point, where I went from glorified punching bag to actual student. And it only took mr three years of abuse.

Lesson 4 – Every Action Equals A Reaction

What I really love about aiki arts are the subtleties . They are also something I have hated, and which often frustrated me to no end–especially when trying to teach aiki.

Often these subtleties arise because many aiki techniques have to be done in a specific, systematic order in order to work. Just the slight shift of the head at a wrong moment, an imperceptible twisting at the wrong angle, or even improper breathing can ruin the effectiveness of a technique. Sometimes a tiny shift will have drastic results.

In the art of aiki, every action has a reaction.

Conceptually, this is not hard to understand. But putting the concept into practice is another thing. Simply put, in order to perform correct aiki against an opponent, one must first master their own body.

Mastering the subtleties of one’s own body is often referred to as the “internal” part of martial arts. By being fully in control of the body, and using it in an integrated manner with no extraneous movements, one generates extraordinary power, speed, and efficiency. It is not about feeling “comfortable,” it’s about doing things correctly.

By learning to “feel” the techniques that were being applied to me, I learned what actions caused which reactions. These lessons were burned into muscle memory rather than conscious thought. No longer did I think about what I was doing; I just did it.

The funny thing, is that teaching has forced me to reverse this process so that I can better explain and demonstrate the things I am teaching. And, yes, having to stop and think about things has affected my ability to execute them like I used to.

In reexamining things, maybe I’m doing a disservice to my students by trying to explain in too much detail. Perhaps I should be more like my teacher and force them to figure it out on their own. We’ll see.

That said, one of my mantras in school is, ” Stop thinking so much! Just do it.” Unfortunately, this lesson goes over the heads of most students, who can’t or won’t ever comprehend what I’m talking about.

Lesson 5 – Point Of Reference

This is closely related to lesson four; “point of reference” describes the manner in which I learned to apply “actions equal reactions.” Understanding action equals reaction is meaningless if you can’t apply it–apply it instantaneously, without conscious thought.

Personally, the way I process information–whether it be physical movement, verbal instructions, or things I read–is by firmly establishing both a starting point and the objective. How I get from point A to point B can vary.

When it comes to physical movement, establishing a starting point is normally very easy. Reaching the objective is the hard point. There are often translation problems from my mental intention to my body’s physical expression of it. The body is not always capable of, or coordinated enough for moving in the intended way. Too often, you end up either omitting steps or adding extra movements, without ever being aware of it. This brings us back to the subtleties of aiki.

The simplest example I can use to describe “point of reference” comes from when when I took Karate. In the beginning, I had a very hard time learning the kata–their solo forms. I was simply terrible at it. I understood the overall point of learning the kata, but unless individual movements and sequences were broken down with the purposes explained in detail, I found it hard to visualize what I was doing. That made remembering the sequence of movements very hard for me.

Thus, to learn the Karate kata, I had to create various points of reference to remind myself that I was blocking this or that attack, and then using such-and-such defense.

Practicing solo kata does not give the kind instant feedback I was accustomed to having. Since you’re not applying any of the movements to an actual living, breathing opponent, there is no way to check that your movements are correct and viable. There’s nothing to “feel,” except your own actions.

This is not meant to be derogatory, or to suggest that the bunkai (applications) in kata are not effective. It’s just that the way karate practitioners approach their objectives is different both from how I was trained and how my mind processes information.

In fact, my teacher did teach kata. We just did them in reverse. Instead of learning the solo portion first, we started by learning how to apply the movements. After we had understood that, then we would practice the movements on our own.

For me personally, that was a better approach, because I didn’t have to imagine what I was trying to accomplish; I knew my objective. My points of reference where clear: I had to do this in order to achieve that.

As I explain it to my students, forms are sequential movements, that have to be done in a specific order: A, B, C, D, E, F, etc. Leave out one step or alter the sequence, and you are not doing the form. You may get the application to work, often by being forceful, but you still did it wrong.

Lesson 6 – Breathing

The last thing I learned from ukemi was how to breathe properly. This is an ability I don’t think my teacher could have fully taught me, given the language barrier between us. Breathing from the hara (abdomen) has little meaning to a 13-year-old. My teacher could poke my tanden (a spot below the navel considered the center of power) as much as he wanted, I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t feel it.

Of course, learning to breathe properly has a lot to do with relaxation, and learning to “feel.” All these elements seem to always work in conjunction with each other, which can’t be a coincidence.

Unfortunately, I can’t even begin to explain how I breathe in relation to my fighting skills, or how I use “breath” in my techniques. Nor can I explain how I figured it out. It seems like my body learned it on its own through a lot of trial and error.

Undoubtedly, training at the beach (which we did often) assisted my need for proper breath control. My teacher liked to pin us face down in the water, and hold us there until we surfaced, gasping for air. The more one thrashed, the longer they were held. As you can imagine, the first thing we had to learn was to relax and not panic.

Holding one’s breath underwater, even for a few seconds, can seem like an eternity–especially when you’re not prepared for it and are being held there against your will.

Though torturous, my teacher wasn’t drowning us without purpose. There was a lesson to be learned, though it took a while to figure it out. And, no, the lesson was not to stay away from the water when he was around–although that was good advice; it was how to breathe properly.

I learned how to inhale such that an optimal amount of oxygen was taken in, and then how to release that breath as needed–or, in the case of being held under water, how to hold it in and use the air for as long as possible (which is also useful to know when countering choking attacks).

I wish I could elaborate more, but I really cannot describe what I do better.  It has become completely reflexive.

One instructor told me, some years ago, that one should never inhale when doing a technique; it should be done in one breath. He also stated that the samurai would often watch for their opponent to inhale and attack them at that very instant. That was how important proper breath control was.

Unfortunately, he would not go into detail on how to breathe properly. He basically said, “figure it out on your own.”

That statement may not have been the response I was hoping for, but it might be the proper one. Maybe learning to breathe correctly needs to be self-taught, at least to some degree. An instructor can give insights into methodologies, ways to picture what you are trying to accomplish, and even corrections, but in the end the practitioner has to put the pieces of the puzzle together themselves. It’s not easy but it is doable.

However, it’s not possible to learn without combining the other lessons that I’ve discussed.

* * *

As I said at the beginning of this essay, when I started training it was harsh. For most of my adult life, I have been under the assumption that my teacher didn’t like me, and was just trying to get rid of me during the first few years.

I have always wondered why I was taught in this manner, so brutally compared to how other martial artist I have come to know were taught. I’ve even questioned whether what I endured those first few years really qualifies as training, or if it was just hazing.

But maybe there was a lot more method to my teachers “madness” than I ever realized.
Perhaps, instead of just verbally filling my head with theory and principles, things I wouldn’t have understood at the time, he made me learn them first hand. He forced me to use, and develop senses I didn’t even realize I had. He brought out the latent abilities that I needed to avoid being seriously hurt, made me overcome fears in a productive manner, and got me to trust my intuition.

He forced to me to re-work my body, to retrain how my body moved. I learned to mentally prepare myself for a confrontation, and to use instinct rather than conscious thought both defensively and offensively.

He didn’t “give” me my martial skills, he made me take them, and make them my own.

In conversations we had later, when I was an adult, he claimed to have taught us in the same manner that he was taught. Maybe that was how things were done before the commercialization of the martial arts. I don’t have enough knowledge of traditional arts and their training methods to give a definitive answer about that. But if you know me, you know what answer I’m leaning towards.

Traditional or not, I don’t know that how I learned was the best method. It certainly was not a path most people would undertake by choice. I was just dumb kid who didn’t know any better.

But looking back from where I am now, I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing.

* * *

* I’ve heard that “baka da” can be translated in many ways.
The word “Baka” can mean jerk, dolt, imbecile, fool (foolish), stupid, worthless, absurd, ridiculous, and/or idiotic. Any of these worlds might describe how my teacher felt when I did things wrong. All of them probably applied when I did things wrong repeatedly after receiving corrections.

The translation I’m going with is; “What you did was stupid.” Although the word “absurd” would fit his personality better than “stupid.”

Of course I guess he could have also said, Baka yamero yo, which I believe translates to “don’t be such an idiot.” This phrase seems to be more appropriate, but given the nuances of the Japanese language may have other connotations that made the phrase inappropriate to use.

I like Baka Janai, myself, which means: “are you stupid or what?” But I think that’s more slang.

Jujutsu: the “Gentle” Art?

When I started training, my teacher did not use a specific name for the style of martial art he was teaching. But anything we did without weapons, if he gave it a label, he would call jujutsu.

At the time, my teacher could have called whatever we were doing anything he wanted; I would not have cared.  As an 11 year old boy in the 70’s, I had no clue about different martial styles. I hadn’t even seen a Kung Fu movie yet.

All I knew was that my teacher was Japanese, and that the techniques I was learning looked like stuff I had seen in The James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice.” That’s all that mattered to me.

It is hard to imagine now, in the era of the Internet, but in the early 1970’s it was extremely difficult to find any information about martial arts styles, history, or techniques. It was even harder to find information about jujutsu.

This was especially true for me:  an 11 year old boy with a mother who not only had no clue what the martial arts were, but mostly likely would have thought them too violent to let me train in or learn about (much of my early training was done secretly, with my mother believing I was spending time at a friend’s house, which was partially true).

Unlike the proliferation of schools nowadays, even finding a martial art school in San Francisco in the 70’s was tough. I don’t even remember knowing anyone who studied martial arts at the time, Excepting the boxing school a few blocks from my house, I didn’t know any martial art schools near where I lived—and believe me I was trying hard to look.

Even the local bookstore, which I went to often, didn’t have a martial arts section, and rarely carried anything on the topic.  When they did have something, it was usually some pocket-sized book written by Bruce Tegner, or a reprint of an older self-defense manual with cheesy hand drawn pictures. It was pretty worthless stuff–no offense to Mr. Tegner.  Though I do give him credit for writing a book on vital point striking, which was my first English-language resource for these methods.

* * *

I wasn’t even able to find a copy of Black Belt Magazine, until the late 70’s when Grandmaster Brendan Lai (of Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu), opened his martial arts supply store on Mission Street. This store was only five blocks from my house, and it soon became my hub for martial arts related materials.

I do not know how much of my spare pocket money I spent there, but there always seemed to more books than I could afford.  I was often kicked out of the store for spending too much time reading a book or magazine instead of making a purchase.

If he had known that many years later I would open my own martial arts school almost next door to his store, perhaps he would have been more accommodating. Maybe he also would have accepted my request to train in his style–but that’s another story.

As excellent a resource as Brendan Lai’s Martial Arts Supply Store was, he focused on books and equipment for Chinese systems.  He rarely had books on other styles. Furthermore, many of the books he carried were written in Chinese and were of little value to me except for the pictures.

Still, I did manage to find many interesting books about Chinese arts covering topics such as Chin-Na (techniques of catching and locking), Shuai Jiao (wrestling), and Chinese broadsword.  These styles, if I may dare to say so, appeared to have similar fundamentals to what I was learning; although I never would have said that to my teacher—heaven forbid.

While Chinese topics clearly dominated the inventory, every now and then a book about Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, or even Ninjas would appear on the shelves. These were a welcome change, and offered me some insights to other arts and training methods.

Unfortunately, they were still not what I was searching for. I wanted books about Jujutsu, and it seemed like those did not exist.  It was frustrating. If I could find books on all these other arts, why couldn’t I find what I was searching for. It had to exist, didn’t it? Was Jujutsu even a real art?

* * *

I was further frustrated and perplexed when I was still unsuccessful in my goal during my rare trips to Japantown, a place where one would assume books on Japanese martial arts would be readily available.  I was able to find more texts about Aikido, Karate, Kendo, Kenjutsu, Samurai History, and even Ninjutsu in Japantown, but still nothing specifically about jujutsu.

In fairness to the Kinokuniya Bookstore, when I went to Japantown with my teacher, I rarely had an opportunity to search for books.  We usually went either to watch Japanese movies or so my teacher could meet up with friends.  In either case, my teacher expected me to sit quietly, eat whatever food was provided, and be his errand boy when he needed something.

Many readers may wonder why my12-year-old self didn’t just ask my teacher more questions. That would of course have been the reasonable thing to do.

In the early years of my training my teacher rarely spoke to me.  He was more intent on figuring out how to make me quit than on teaching me.  On the rare occasions when my teacher did speak to me, it was very hard to understand him.  His English was poor and he had a heavy accent–which would drastically vary depending on his desire to communicate with me.

No matter how little I was able to comprehend him, I didn’t dare ask him to repeat himself. That would just frustrate him, often leading to a needlessly hard training session.  On the other side, I’m not sure how much my teacher understood when I talked to him either; he would often just look at me with a blank stare or frown and walk away.

Needless to say our exchanges weren’t very in-depth, or informative. In fact, I’m sure I frustrated the hell out of him by often saying “yes sir” after he had explained something, and then doing something completely different than what he had expected of me.

The result was that even from my teacher, I was not able to get any information about Jujutsu.

* * *

Now ,I’ve never been known for giving up when I set my mind to do something.  I bugged my local librarian for over two years about this topic.  The, finally, two books about Jujutsu appeared at our local branch. Yeah!!!

Both books were small paperback texts, sloppily printed on brittle brown paper, with awful hand drawn pictures.  Yet, though poorly produced, having them in my hands was like finding gold to me at that time.  Even to this day, I remember how excited I was to find them, and how I couldn’t wait to read the books cover to cover.

And then, in the fist paragraph of the first page of the first book, got the shock of my life.  The book said that “Jujutsu” can be translated as “The Gentle Art”.

“Gentle Art!” I had been training for over two years and there was nothing gentle about it.  In fact, it hurt a lot: my joints were twisted and torqued; I was choked; I was thrown to the ground–and all the while I was being kicked, kneed, elbowed, and punched.

There had to be some mistake. I could not imagine that Samurai would have done a “gentle art.”  They were warriors, great fighting men who would throw themselves on their own sword to save their honor. What would be the use to learning something “gentle,” when it came to fighting on the battlefield.

I was quite plainly flustered.  But still, eager to learn, I checked the books out, and read them cover to cover–repeatedly.

In the end, these books were not very informative; but they were about Jujutsu and that’s all that mattered. They proved that Jujutsu was real, and the techniques were often similar enough to what I was doing that I could relate to them.

In a few, rare cases, they helped me understand some piece of the puzzle I had been unable to get from my teacher, whether by his omission or our inability to communicate fully.

I also carefully studied the hand drawn diagrams.  Looking back, this was really a waste of time.  As you can see by the pictured examples, essential steps needed to make them work were left out.

* * *

They say that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.  Armed with my new-found books, there was a part of me that really wanted to show them to my teacher and ask stupid questions like “when do I get to learn this?” or, worse yet, “why do they do it that way and we do it another way?”

More importantly there was that nagging question why Jujutsu was called a “Gentle Art.”

Fortunately, common sense prevailed–by which I mean that my sense of fear won out.  I did not tell my teacher about my discovery or ask him any questions related to the books; it just wasn’t worth the risk. I knew my place in the school, and that at any time I could be told to never come back. I had seen such things enough times to know how moody my teacher could be, and that he wouldn’t give anyone a second chance.

I certainly hoped my teacher would never find out about the books.  But it would not make this a particularly interesting story if he had not.  Nor would it be believable that a thirteen year old could keep a secret, and fully fight the urge to ask questions.

I cannot remember why I took the books to class, or what led up to my teacher finding them.  Chances are that he saw them while I was doing my homework–this was required before we were allowed to train and was often done at his house.  I carried these books in my backpack everywhere I went for several weeks, and would read and reread them on my long bus ride home.

However it happened, it happened.  I mostly remember the embarrassment of being caught with them and the fear of what was going to happen next.

To my surprise, and totally out of character for him, my teacher was not upset at all.  He was actually sort of amused.  To say I was dumbfounded would be an understatement.  I had prepared for the worst, and it didn’t come.

Anxious to know why I wasn’t facing the hailstorm I had anticipated, I watched my teacher flip through the pages of the books several times with a smirk on his face.  After several minutes, which seemed an eternity, he handed the books back and told me that they were not worth the paper they were printed on.

Looking at the books today, I have to agree, though both have a place on my bookshelf.  But, at the time, these books meant a lot to me.  How could they be so worthless?  Did he not realize how hard it was for me to find them? I had to know why.

His answer was short and simple: “In time you will understand.”

What?  That’s no answer, or at least not enough of one for a 13 year old.  I needed to know more.

There was nothing but silence.

“Sensei, may I ask one last question?” I inquired in the most respectful tone I could muster, thinking I had now overstepped my bounds. Time seemed to stand still.

After what seemed forever, my teacher gave a nod of approval.  I finally asked him the one burning question I had had since I first opened the books. “Sensei, why do they call Jujutsu a ‘Gentle Art’ when it hurts so much?”

I think that was the first time I ever saw my teacher smile–at least at me–and the first time we had a real conversation. It was certainly the first time he invited me to eat dinner with his family, and it marked an important milestone in our teacher-student relationship.

* * *

I wish I could say that I remember our conversation word for word, but the truth is that I do not.  I do remember that it gave me my first real insights into the concepts and principles of Jujutsu.  The gist of that discussion is something I try and instill on every new student who enters my school.

The lesson that day was simple.  Jujutsu is a “gentle art.”  It is a very gentle art.  However, that gentleness is for the practitioner, not the person receiving the technique.

Traditional Jujutsu is all about obtaining maximum results with minimal effort or force. It’s about yielding to ones’ opponent, and redirecting their force to gain the advantage. Jujutsu is about being pliant.

The “gentleness” comes from learning to flow and blend with one’s opponent so precisely that the techniques seem to work without any effort.

Put another way, your movements are so gentle that they are imperceptible; they cause a reaction that your opponent can’t become aware of, or counter, until it’s too late.

Then again, as Harry Lord, the author of “Lighting Ju-Jitsu” stated, “as for Ju-Jitsu being a ‘gentle art,’ you can mark that down to the diabolical Japanese humor.”

A Uniform for the Low Ranking Spearman

As readers stumble upon this blog or the school website, we get all sorts of feedback: some we receive directly and some we find as chatter on message boards, some is thoughtful, some is nasty.

On several occasions now, people have asked and speculated about a photo of myself on our website where I am wearing a green kimono and a tare.

Normally I hate pictures of myself. Maybe one out of five hundred pictures taken of me won’t get torn up, or–in this day of digital–erased. With such a small selection of photos of me to choose from, I picked this one. One day I’m sure it will be replaced when I find one I like better.

This photo happened to be taken on a day when I was teaching my students how to use the yari (spear). This outfit of a kimono, no hakama (pleated trousers), and a tare–basically a padded apron–from a set of kendo armor, might seem unusual to most practitioners of the Japanese martial arts.

Yet, this was the normal “uniform” that I wore when I trained in Sojutsu (spear arts) with my teacher (minus the t-shirt seen underneath, which my teacher would never have allowed, but I now wear to protect the kimono from my sweat–it’s very hard to find a kimono that fits me).

It might surprise some of you young guys, but finding a hakama in the 70’s and 80’s wasn’t that easy. However, kimonos were easy to find, and a vintage kimono was a lot cheaper than a hakama. As a result, we wore kimonos most of the time, especially at the beach where we didn’t want to get our hakamas (those that we could find) dirty or damaged due to the sand and water.

As for the tare, well that’s simple: it protects the hips, upper thighs, and groin. Since sojutsu training includes a great deal of thrusting practice from the hip, it is not unusual to get hit in these spots when doing two man drills/forms, especially if one’s timing is just a little off, or a deflection doesn’t go were it is suppose to

While the tare doesn’t offer great protection, it’s better than nothing at all. It’s also easier to find and far more affordable that buying a do-maru, which would be the most appropriate equipment to practice in. A do-maru is a type of Japanese medieval armor that first appeared in Japan during the 11th century; it was commonly worn by lower ranking foot soldiers.

I think a lot of the confusion related to my picture would have been eliminated if I had also been wearing the do (chest guard) that normally goes with the tare. However, when I was training with my teacher, finding Kendo armor was even harder than finding a hakama. When one could come across them, they were very expensive–especially for a teenager with limited funds. Lets face it, they’re even expensive today.

Since lack of funds was always an issue, my teacher and I rarely could afford to buy martial arts equipment. We had to improvise. This meant we rarely, if ever, owned a do to wear, and we never had a men (helmet). We didn’t even have kote (gloves)–which, by the way, are terrible for spear practice (at least the ones designed for Kendo are.)

Do Men Kote

The fact of the matter is, that when I was training with my teacher, we normally made our own tare. We made them out of stiff cardboard and foam that was covered in assorted scrap fabrics. They didn’t look pretty, but they were functional, and if they ripped we didn’t care. In addition, the “plates” were a lot longer then most tare, and covered both the front and back of the person wearing it.

In many instances, our tare were more comparable to kusazuri, though some versions were clearly related to haidate.

Now please forgive my ignorance when it comes to Japanese armor, but I believe the difference between a kusazuri and haidate are that the kusazuri version is a skirt of plates attached to a leather belt which is laced to the bottom of the do, while the haidate version are a series of plates intended to specifically protect the thighs.

Another difference is that haidate do not protect the rear side of the person wearing them, and from what I’ve read were often not worn by samurai because they were uncomfortable, had limited mobility, and slowed them down.

Kusazuri with do


As for the do, we did try to make them, but cardboard doesn’t work well, and really gives a false sense of security. After much trial and error, my teacher came to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. He felt that it was more important to really learn to deflect or evade attacks to the body, than rely on such protection. And yes, it hurts a lot when a thrust strike hits your body.

Of course, we tried other things. One substitute we tried was using chest guards designed for baseball catchers. But they presented other problems. For example, when they got wet they became very heavy and uncomfortable. They would also smell and rot due to the moisture. Basically, they were just not a good solution.

We also made our own sune-ate (shin guards), which were either worn over are bare legs, or covered the bottom of our hakamas when we elected to wear them. The beaches in San Francisco where we trained can get extremely cold and a hakama helps keep you warm or at least reduce the wind-chill factor–at least a little.

As I said already, I’m no armor expert; but from all the pictures and illustrations I’ve seen of Ashigaru (conscripted foot soldiers) they are normally depicted wearing little more than a do with kusazuri, and some type of simple helmet such as a jingasa (war hat).

My teacher considered himself as a spearman, and had ancestors who were once low ranking samurai, possibly ashigaru (a fact he never fully confirmed or denied). I believe that he wished to equip himself in that fashion while practicing spear techniques, but elected to wear only the tare since he didn’t own a do or a do-maru.

Whether this was a family tradition, or was simply because my teacher couldn’t afford the proper equipment I can’t say. Though if I had to guess, it was probably due to his financial situation.

In either case, following the example set by my teacher, we now wear the tare when practicing Sojutsu, which explains the photo. One day, if I can find affordable, sturdy, American-sized do-maru, that tradition will most likely change.

I’m not stating that wearing the tare alone is traditional when it comes to Sojutsu styles, or that any other school dress in such a manner. It just works for us.

Picture from “Ashigaru 1467-1649” by Stephen Turnbull and Howard Gerrard


When I was a kid, I used to spend my summer vacations visiting my father who lived in Sulphur, Louisiana.

Now, the city of Sulphur used to be one of those small rural cities you could drive by and miss if you blinked. It was the type of place where everyone seemed to know everyone and most people were related to each other in some manner or other.

It was “good old boy” country, except most of these good old boys were Cajun. They spoke French, listened to Zydeco, and who proudly referred to themselves as “Coon-asses.” (Yes, the term “coon-ass” is historically derogatory, but they called themselves that with pride. Go figure!)

Sulphur was also one of those places where there was almost nothing to do. I mean, they didn’t even have a movie theatre, and unless you were on a little league baseball/softball team a kid could die of boredom. It was clearly a place that if you weren’t interested in watching the daily soap operas on TV (must see TV for my relatives) you had to have the inventiveness to find alternative ways of entertaining yourself.

However, while visiting Sulphur could be frightfully dull, it was a place surrounded by wilderness, fishing holes, and small family farms with almost every variety of livestock imaginable. For a city boy like me, who loved animals and nature, Sulphur was paradise.

Or maybe I should say that it was because of the animals that I found Sulphur to be a so much fun. To be perfectly honest, as much as I like the “simple life,” if it weren’t for the animals and my father’s relatives (a very interesting lot), Sulphur would be more like Hell. If the heat and humidity don’t kill you, chances are the swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, alligators, garfish, torrential rain and lighting storms, or toxic sulfuric fumes from the refining plants will.

Of course as a kid, none of the heat and or other hazards seemed to matter, and I looked forward to my yearly trip. It was my chance to be the “farm boy,” to play with the animals, to go fishing, and to walk in the woods whenever I wanted to. It was a chance to experience country living, far away for the noise and congestion of the city. In addition, there was the added bonus that I could drive my fathers riding lawnmower each and every time the grass needed cutting, and the grass always needed cutting. For someone not old enough to legally drive that was a big plus.

Now before I get into heart of my story I should inform the reader that there is a big difference between raising animals for food, and raising animals as pets. Those individuals that raise animals for food view farm animals as commodities; while I never witnessed any animals being mistreated, these people know where the animals will eventually end up, so never really build an attachment to them.

I on the other hand, being from the city viewed all of these farm animals as “cute and cuddly” pets, or—should I dare say—as playmates. The realization that many of these animals would end up being someone’s dinner didn’t occur until many years later. I mean, how could anyone eat poor Fluffy?

Because I viewed all animals as “pets,” I rarely considered the potential hazards of interacting with them, or the possible injuries these animals could inflict. At the time, it didn’t even dawn on me that many of these animals had little or no exposure to humans, and if given the choice would avoid human contact all together. Needless to say, I often learned this lesson the hard way. And let me tell you, even a duck can cause severe injuries with the right provocation, even provocation with the duck’s best interest at heart.

Of course, interacting with various animal species does teach a person a lot, especially how animals think and react to specific stimulus and how to read body language correctly. These lessons were useful for understanding and dealing with the more unpredictable two legged animals in my career in law enforcement many years later.

More importantly, interacting with animals can also teach one a lot about life-protection skills. Skills such as: how to run very very quickly when threatened or outmatched; how to dodge/block oncoming attacks from beaks, claws, horns, and teeth; how to improve vertical jumping skills in order to clear high hurdles/fences; and how to develop the art of improvised defensive weaponry. I think I know at least 20 ways to use a feed-bucket in the art of “Barnyard-Jutsu.”

Of course, a lot of these lessons could have been avoided if I would have listened to the people who were raising the animals in the first place. Giving credit where credit is due, farmers know a lot about the animals they raise. While a lot of what they tell you seems far-fetched, normally their advice is worth taking. Their advice illustrated in advance the risks I took; I was clearly informed what could happen and how to avoid it. Of course if I had taken their advice my life, at least as far as my training in the martial arts, may have turned out very differently.

Now I don’t want to give the reader the wrong impression. My father didn’t have a farm, nor was he a farmer. However, he always had a variety of animals on his property.

Most of the time he kept rabbits and several types of chickens. But every now and then he would decide to raise something bigger, that he would eventually use to fill his deep freeze.

One particular summer, when I was about 14 years old, that larger animal turned out to be a male Holstein calf I named Peanut.

Now, for those of you not well versed in the various breeds of cattle, a Holstein is a fairly large breed. It is one of the most common breeds found in the US and Holstein’s are famous for their unique black and white patterns (no two Holsteins have the same pattern). Calves are often born weighing a hefty 90lbs or more, and by the time they are adults a bull can weigh over 2000 pounds, stand 58 inches tall, run at over 25 miles per hours, and have a vertical leaping ability of over 6 feet. Fortunately, they are fairly mild-mannered; but if provoked, threatened, or agitated they are a force to be reckoned with.

Now when I first met Peanut, he was about four months old. He still had the oversized ears, big brown eyes, and lanky awkward gate of a calf. But he was already at the point where he was maturing into a little bull—or should I say, a “big Bully.”

Peanut was definitely king of his pen. He made it clear to all intruders that their presence would only be tolerated for a certain period of time. That time was normally no more than what it took to feed him and change his water bucket.

Intruders out-staying their welcome were confronted with snorts, aggressive head swipes, and mock charges. If that wasn’t enough to make the intruder leave Peanut then went into head-butt mood. At that point, the intruder had a choice: either run or do your best impression of a Matador.

Now for those who have read some of my other postings, you may already be aware that I have somewhat of a stubborn streak. That was even truer when I was younger. Certainly, I was of the mindset that I wasn’t going to let some little bull boss me around or chase me out of his pen. The battle of wills was on.

Round one definitely went to Peanut. I learned that getting a full on head-butt to the back and legs is quite painful. I also leaned that bulls don’t stop once their target is down. No, Peanut wasn’t about to stop hitting me until I was out of territory. To say I got my butt kicked that day would be an understatement.

Of course it was also a learning lesson. I first learned that calves can move really quickly, and can turn on a dime at full speed. I also learned that they have the uncanny knack to move one part of their body in one direction while the other seems to go in a completely opposite direction. In other words, bulls can move in a really deceptive ways.

Well, after our first encounter, I made it a point to be in charge of feeding Peanut. Twice a day I would enter his pen, and twice a day he would go through his routine of posturing, mock charging, and ultimately attacking at me.

At first Peanut would win and I routinely had to run out of the pen. However, battered and bruised I vowed, “Tomorrow was another day.”

A few weeks later, as I caught on to Peanut’s tactics, our clashes became more dance-like. Peanut would charge and I would evade by turning or stepping out of the way at the very last instant. Ole’!

Within weeks I finally started applying the aikijujutsu skills I had been learning back home against Peanut. At first, my movement wasn’t efficient enough nor was my timing accurate to always get off line enough to avoid being hit. Initially, I was also unable to do follow up evasion movements that would counter Peanut’s ability to turn or twist as he realized he missed me. I also had to watch out for his ability to kick with his hind legs—in almost any direction he wanted to—which at first caught me by surprise.

If I learned anything at this time it was that tension really can kill; the more tense I was the harder it was for me to react or flow with the impact. In addition, I discovered that thinking about what to do didn’t work. I had to let my instincts and natural survival skills direct my actions.

By the end of my second month of vacation, Peanut and I were “playing” more equally. He would get his shots in, but more often than not I was evading, blocking or blending with his movements. His attacks, however, became slower and more calculated. For anyone who thinks animals don’t learn, Peanut slowly discovered what I was up to and made adjustments.

These adjustments were a good thing though, since they forced me to make my own adjustments and develop the mindset not to react until I really processed what was happening. In other words, I learned a certain level of zanshin, calmness when confronted with a potential threat.

As I learned to relax, my reactions became quicker, and more precise. I started thinking less about what I should do and stared just doing things reactively as Peanut went about his various charges, twists and turns.

I would still be hit from time to time, but that happened less often, and even when it did the force was greatly reduced. I didn’t get knocked to the ground as often, and normally our sparring matches would end because Peanut would get bored and trot off to chase something else. He was, needless to say, a poor sport when he didn’t get his way.

As my summer vacation drew to an end Peanut became less interested in sparring with me. We had developed a certain understanding, and he was happier to show his superior physical prowess by head butting other objects (tires, big 55 gallon buckets, chickens, etc) in his enclosure and making sure I knew he had the ability to destroyed these items.

Of course being partially ignored lend to another lesson in the life-protection arts. NEVER TURN YOUR BACK on your enemy or any potential threat.

Now, I’m not sure how a 500-pound plus bull sneaks up on a person, but he managed to do just that. Out of nowhere Peanut charged at me full out. If I hadn’t rolled to my side he would definitely have gored me, which I’m sure was his intent.

Flustered, all the lessons I had learned went out the window. All I wanted to do was run, and run I did. Bull bearing down, I ran at full speed until I hit the electrified fence, which fortunately wasn’t on at full power. Ricocheting back towards my charging adversary, I did a back roll—basically rolling under Peanuts legs.

My actions must have startled poor Peanut because he went crashing into the fence also. Laying there on the ground all I saw was a bull tumbling back towards me.

Now I can’t say just what I did to avoid Peanut from landing on me, but just as he hit the ground I moved out of the way.

Now just imagine this picture, a bull and a boy lying on the ground looking at each other both knowing what the other was thinking. It was a look that said, “What the hell just happened here, and I hope no one saw that.” If Peanut had been a person I’m sure we would have shared a momentary laugh; but Peanut just got up, snorted, and walked off like nothing happened, or as if he had meant to do it.

I was a little more stunned, so it took me a while to get up and leave. In addition, by the time I came back to my senses, my father was already present. He was yelling about the damaged fence, and how it happened. I’m not sure at that moment what I was more scared of, my father or another sneak attack from Peanut.

This sneak attack marked one of our final battles, and a few days later I was on a plane returning to San Francisco.

Returning to my teacher’s house, I was exhilarated to tell him about how I had used my evasion techniques and blending skills to avoid Peanut’s attacks. I also couldn’t wait to tell him how our summer long sparring match had given me new insights to relaxing when threatened. All aspects he had been trying to instill upon me during our daily practice.

I’m not sure just how my teacher reacted to my story, or felt about the fact that I had spent my summer bull fighting, but he did notice the changes in how I reacted to being attacked. I now flinched a lot less, reacted more instinctively, and focused less on the attacking object and more on my whole surroundings.

Whatever the pros and cons were in spending my summer sparring with Peanut, that period when I returned to San Francisco became the turning point of my training. It was the point when I went from just doing basics to learning the more in-depth elements of the martial art I now teach.

I owe that little bull a lot of thanks.

Now I would love to end this story saying that Peanut lived a long full life, but that was never his fate. While it’s true that I would have loved to believe the story my father contrived to spare my emotional ties to Peanut, I will never be able to forget the fact that my father’s deep freeze just happened to be bursting with beef when I went there the next year.

Sure there were other bulls in the area to spar with, and since Peanut’s time I’ve even had the chance to interact with some major Rodeo bulls that weighed in at over 1800 pounds. However, none of these other bulls had the same zest Peanut had when it came to attacking me.

These full size bulls might have hit harder and moved quicker, but they lacked the delightful smirk Peanut had when his attack was successful. They didn’t seem to revel in the pleasure of the battle. They didn’t seem to have the same tenacious personality that made them attack me daily or with the same intent.

No, battling these bulls, never felt the same. I stilled learned valuable lessons about how to move my body, blending, and relaxing when threatened, but it never felt the same as my summer with Peanut.

Why Judo

Now that I’ve completed eight of the top ten principles used in the system of martial arts I teach, I would like to answer a question asked by one of my students, which I’m sure has also been asked by other readers of this “blog.”

That question being why I often use judo techniques to illustrate our principles instead of techniques used in Aikido. After all, our techniques, the art that I teach, must have more in common with Aikido than Judo.

Well, yes and no!

Of course, the simple answer is I’ve never trained in Aikido, so I have no idea how their techniques are explained. All I know about Aikido is what I’ve learned at a couple of seminars and from books. That is clearly not enough knowledge to discuss Aikido principles or applications.

There is no doubt that we use similar methodologies akin to Aikido, however I know for a fact our intention and focus behind our techniques is worlds apart from those taught in most Aikido schools.

Yes, it’s true we also believe in the ideals of peace, love and harmony, as sermonized in various Aikido literature. However, we only think that way if the other person has the same intention. When attacked, and forced in a situation where force is necessary, the gloves come off, and our techniques are designed to stop the aggression. If that means serious bodily injury and/or death then that’s what we will do. That’s what we train for, and the intention behind every technique we do. The samurai did not fight to lose, and they used whatever means necessary to accomplish their objective.

While I’ve never formally studied Aikido, I did on the other hand, train in judo for several years. I still keep in touch, and sometimes even practice with, some of my old judo training/coaching partners. (Though I must admit, as we get older we communicate/meet less and less, and unfortunately some have already passed away.)

Since I actually trained in judo, and have read a lot on the topic, I have some actual firsthand insight on how judo techniques work and how they are taught. This allows me to make informed commentary. And no, I don’t claim to fully understand all the intricacies that make up the art of judo. I’m no more than a passer-by, a casual observer of that martial art.

Fortunately, when I trained in judo I was taught techniques by several excellent judoka, some of whom were, or had been on the US Olympic team. I have to assume that if they reached that level they had to know what they were talking about. Many are nationally known and widely respected. Some of my teachers included:

Duke Moore – (seminars only) He made it all look so easy, and had so much technical insight to share. Though better known as a jujutsu practitioner, he was well versed in grappling.

Tim Delgman – (college years and seminars) I knew Tim before he became Soke (inheritor) of Mr. Moore’s system. In college his skills were good, but over the years have even become better.

Willy Cahill – (seminars as well as a few months at his school – right before college) As a teen, I remember Mr. Cahill as a giant of a man who moved with grace and speed. A few years ago, I ran into him again. While he no longer appeared to be a giant, he clearly still has all the skills, maybe even more, that I remembered.

Wally Jay – (Before college and several seminars up until his retirement.)
While known more for his jujutsu skills than judo, he did teach judo skills when I trained with him.

Mitchell Palacio (college) I think he does the best tai-otoshi throw I’ve ever seen. It is so smooth and effortless that you don’t even feel it until you hit the mat.

Neil Laughlin (college) (Promoted me to 1st Dan) (My main judo instructor) He was the first true heavyweight I had the chance to work with. He proved to me that even if you’re a large person, you should still use technique rather than rely just on muscle and speed. I learned a lot about mat work from him, and owe much of my ground skills to his training.

Mike Swain (seminars)

Bill Paul (college) I didn’t know who he was the first time we did randori (free sparring) and he just played with me for a full half an hour. I mean, no matter what I did he countered me instantly and effortlessly, barely breaking a sweat in the process. It was a totally humbling experience, until I learned who he was.

Phil Porter – (seminars) (Offered to promote me to 4th Dan, which I declined out of respect to those that actually practice judo on a regular basis.) I realize Mr. Porter, (I refuse to call him O’sensei) doesn’t have the best reputation in the martial arts community because of his policies regarding issuing rank and his organization’s politics, but he is an excellent judo practitioner with a lot of knowledge to offer. His technical skills are amazing as is the openness in which he teaches them.

Victor Anderson – While not an instructor of mine we have spent many hours discussing judo, judo theory, and judo techniques. He has also been invited to teach at several of the Budo seminars I have hosted.

So what is the answer to the original questions and why did I answer “Well yes and no?”

The truth is that many of our projections are very similar to judo. We just do them slightly different, with an intention of breaking our opponent, rather than pinning him. Our projections are clearly designed to snap necks, break shoulders, and damage vital organs.

On the other hand, we use the principles of aiki, (those found in Aikido) to set up these projections, and make them easier to do.

In other words we utilize the best of both approaches. Or, as I tell prospective students, we’re the type of martial art that Judo and Aikido were founded on.