Finding a Gentler Way

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned on this blog, so if I haven’t done so already, I’ll mention it now. A few months ago I decided to pursue my desire to learn judo, the Japanese art of “the gentle way”. From what I understand, it takes the brutal efficiency of jujutsu (the “gentle art”, the empty-handed grappling art designed to break joints even against an armoured samurai) and turns it into a safer sport based on throws (with grappling as a slightly lesser focus).

I’ve may have mentioned before that I get cravings for certain martial principles and I practice them obsessively. Off the top of my head, I can recall being obsessed with side kicks, spinning kicks, single whip, teisho, mae ude hineri uke, mawashi uke, bagua’s fourth and eighth palm change… Actually, the more I list, the more there are. Suffice it to say I’ll spend weeks drilling one movement as I go about my daily life. A little while ago, my “flavour of the month” was osotogari – the great leg sweep – and I decided I’d follow up on my desire to get better at throwing people.

A little while later I found myself at a judo club, and I picked it up very quickly. It seems that it never gets less scary stepping onto a foreign school’s mat – it was just as awesome and terrifying as that first day of Taekwondo – though I had a good grasp of the basics already and picked up the throws as quickly as I picked up my opponents before dropping them on the crash mats. It was ridiculous how fun it was to pick up someone more than twice my body weight and throw them clean over my shoulder. Although I’m probably among the weakest students, my stamina and flexibility are among the highest that I’ve seen, and my practical fighting skills seem to be more advanced than those of my comrades. I do acknowledge though that the judoka, while more crass than the students of the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts, are good at what they do, and I would like to get good at it too.

However it’s definitely harder for me. Leverage is everything in judo, and for a little guy to throw a taller, heavier or stronger guy is significantly harder. Seriously, size matters a huge amount. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but by jove it makes a difference in the early stages. I recently attended a judo conference (which was targeted mainly at black belts, and I felt sorely out of place there learning advanced knowledge when my basic curriculum was still mostly empty) and did randori with the other attendees for 45 minutes straight. It became pretty clear to me that most of the time they could read my intentions clearly and stop me with a little resistance, and overcome my resistance with a bit of force or muscle. Any time there was a situation where I had to pit my strength against my partner’s in order to break their structure, I invariably lost despite the advice of my teacher (yelling at me to apply my strength against his weakness, and yet I still struggled to dominate).

The greater lesson I learned from the experience is that every single one of my scabs had come off at some point and I bled all over myself and my uniform. My fingers were torn from the rough fabric of grasping other people’s gi’s, I got kneed in the balls (and they still hurt days later), my shoulders are wrecked and my back was horrendously tight due to the improper warm-up, and I was left with dark bruises across much of my chest and arm where my partner had grabbed me with all of their might. I expended huge amounts of energy, gained numerous injuries, and I don’t think I’ve learned enough to realistically apply any of it in my karate randori. I acquire new injuries every time I go, and after every lesson I ask myself whether it’s worth the pain to acquire the skill.

True, I would love to learn how to throw people more easily, and true, my few lessons have increased my success rate already. I guess I’m going through the white belt phase which is horribly disheartening and feels like I’m making no worthwhile progress compared to the skill of the higher belts. I think for the moment I’ll stick with it (at the very least for another lesson) and see if my mind changes once I’ve filled out more of that empty curriculum in my head.

EDIT: I think I’ve figured out why I don’t like judo as much as karate. I’m definitely going through the beginner phase where I’m disheartened by how much I have to learn and how much better everyone else is. However it’s harder to get the balance between practicing basics and practicing techniques dynamically. That is to say, my partners are either letting me throw them without resistance, or resisting so much that I struggle to throw them. And this hurts! Unlike karate where all the strikes are pulled, I seem to be acquiring new injuries every class from straining or being grabbed strongly. Maybe I just need partners who can teach me at just the right level of challenge to encourage me to learn.

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