Saturday, 9 November 2013

Back to the Bosch

Rickson Gracie – Holland, 26 & 27 October 2013

So, once again, the Rickson Gracie Holland guys re-affirmed their relationship with and commitment to, Rickson with another visit from the Master.
With good connections now in Holland, and an established base in ‘S-Hertogenbosch, cheap ferry fares and good hotel prices, I planned my second trip of the year.  With it being half-term, I was also able to take along my wife and kids and was also joined by Simon, Mike (Carlsons) and my old friend Jim (who has been training for about 6 months now at Carlson’s in Essex and is now thoroughly hooked on BJJ).

After a pleasant ferry crossing (apart from losing my Rickson cap to the wind whilst on deck – much to my children’s delight!) we drove across Belgium and Holland.  Last time, this drive took only a few hours, but this time took around six due mainly to being stuck in horrendous traffic around Antwerp – note to self and all…do not drive near Antwerp on a Friday afternoon!
After arriving at our hotel in Rosmalen, Simon and I headed straight back out to meet up with Michel at his gym for a private lesson.

During the preceding week, Rickson had been staying in Holland running sessions for the Instructors that make up the Rickson Gracie Holland team.  Michel was keen to show us some stuff on passing butterfly guard, beginning with a very neat technique but then expanding into the various principles around the technique and also then into the principles of attack from the bottom.
The session was gold.  I’ve done a lot of coaching as part of my work and I’m a RFU qualified coach, so I like to think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to coaching and this session was one of the most effective coaching sessions on Jiu Jitsu that I’ve ever had.  For both Simon and I, the progression that we made in that session from start to finish was exponential.  A really great session and on a very useful subject.

The next day started with a relaxed trip into Den Bosch for breakfast, leaving my wife and kids as we headed off for Roermond – the location for the first of our two sessions with Rickson.
On arrival, it was great again to see so many of the people I’d met on my last trip and also properly catch up with a couple of people I missed – Raoul (Black Belt that runs the school in Amsterdam) and Russ (ex-pat purple belt that runs the school in Leiden).  There were also a few familiar faces from the UK around.  After doing the rounds, grabbing a bit of loot (including replacing the cap that I’d lost at sea), Rickson called order and began the now familiar formalities of introducing the seminar.

As before, I’m not going to go into detail with what Rickson taught, but will list what we covered, so that the curious can at least understand the span of what Rickson teaches.
Day 1 - content overview
  • Defending base
  • Defending grab and drive from behind
  • Cross-side escapes
  • Revision on armbar
  • Taking the back from guard
  • Elbow escape
I was pleased that during some of the drilling, Rickson recognised me and came up and said hi and at another point came and sat with us, remembering us from his time in the UK.  To be honest, given the number of people he must meet around the world each year, I had no expectation that he would remember us, so was really pleased when he did.
After a much later start on Sunday, we headed off straight from the hotel for Roermond, this time with my wife and kids on board.  Ever since they can remember, Rickson is a name they’ve known through me and now that they too train Jiu Jitsu, Rickson is a legendary figure in their lives as well.  I’d already cleared with Michel for my kids to tag along and meet Rickson after the seminar, so, Gi’s at the ready, they watched the seminar from the bleachers waiting for their chance.

Day 2 followed a similar format to day one, covering:
  • Movement and connection in the clinch
  • Holding clinch from the side
  • Entrance to the clinch against a striking opponent
  • Vale tudo guard against a striking opponent
  • Holding cross-side - connection on top
  • Hip movement in Seo Nagi
  • Posture in guard
At the end of the session, Rickson spoke at length at his belief in the fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu as he understands it, his perception that Jiu Jitsu is facing a split with the more sport oriented branch and spoke with disdain at techniques that live only in competition, describing them as “shit”.  He spoke with pride at Kron’s recent clean sweep at the ADCC in china with 4 submission wins, clearly feeling that this demonstrated his case perfectly.
After the seminar, Michel was great at ensuring that my kids got to meet Rickson and get their belts signed – a really proud moment for me, and one, should they continue their journey, that will form part of a memory that many adults, let alone kids will not have the opportunity of.

Michel also spent some time with them both teaching the elbow escape, rolling with them and watching them roll together – something I’m really grateful for as it cements their learning and enthusiasm – hopefully a real investment in the next generation. 

The seminar was very similar in content to the others I’ve attended, but this was of no detriment – it reminded me of key details and I also understood better this time round, whereas it all seemed too much to remember the first time.
Rickson was in great form – very relaxed and did an amazing job of spreading his time and attention amongst the attendees.   I also really enjoyed Jim being there too – because he’s my mate, but also as I know that as a martial artist, he views Rickson as the legend that he undoubtedly is, so it was really great to experience someone else’s excitement at meeting Rickson and experiencing his teaching.

During the 2nd session, Rickson talked about how he felt that Jiu Jitsu was great training for life as it conditions you to find comfort in uncomfortable situations.  This philosophy was put to the test as we left Roermond with the wind and rain beating down and news of the predicted storms hitting the UK coming through.  The news of Dover port being shut on Monday morning didn’t look promising, but we made our way at a sedate pace towards Dunkirk anyway with the storms seemingly crossing over us as we headed through Belgium.  We arrived at a windy but sunny Dunkirk, expecting huge delays, but to our surprise, the port was almost empty and we sailed 30 minutes earlier than scheduled.
The crossing was pretty uncomfortable but we got home safe and sound and earlier than anticipated.

I like to think, touched by the hand of Rickson, we attained maximum efficiency from minimum effort and stayed comfortable in what could have been a very uncomfortable situation.  Or maybe we were just lucky – whatever the case, long may it continue!

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Double Dutch

I’ve spoken before about my Dutch connection that I began cultivating a while back, and how I met Michel Verhoeven at the Rickson Seminar last year.

Michel has been training since 1999 under Harold Harder – as far as I know, Rickson’s first European Black Belt.  In April this year, Michel was awarded his Black Belt by Rickson and Harold.
Having had such a great time in Holland last year, enjoyed the mini-seminar that Michel did it had become my intention to go and train with some of the Rickson guys, and the opportunity presented itself in Jul/August of this year.

At various points in the year, the collection of 11 Rickson Gracie schools in Holland get together for “Central Training” – a chance to come together, to align, maintain bonds and share ideas.  I decided to plan a trip around one such session.  With Michel running his usual classes on a Thursday and Friday and the central training on a Sunday, the agenda was set for a great long weekend in ‘S Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch).

Training trip and Central Training – Den Bosch and Gouda, Holland, 25 – 28 July 2013
My companion for this trip was Simon.  We set sail from Dover early Thursday morning and had a very pleasant 2 hour trip to Dunkirk.  The drive from Dunkirk to Den Bosch (which is pretty much slap-bang in the middle of the Netherlands) took around 2.5 hours.  Thank goodness for Si’s air-con as, with much the rest of Europe, Belgium and Holland were experiencing a heatwave with temperatures up to 37°c.

We arrived at our hotel, situated just outside Den Bosch, near a small town called Rosmalen.
After check-in, we pretty much went straight back out and into Den Bosch to check out the area and grab some food.  More about Den Bosch later – certainly worthy of note in its own right.  After grabbing our kit, we mad the short trip to Michel’s gym and were greeted warmly by Michel and a number of people I knew by name and Facebook, and we quickly felt at home.

Training, Thursday 25th
Then the training began.  And bear in mind what I’ve said about the temperatures! We did a thorough warm up mainly based around core Jiu Jitsu movements and drills and then into some techniques.  The class was given in Dutch (which is fair enough!) so I was grateful for the translation given by the people I trained with, but even without that, it was clear from Michel’s demonstration, intonations and emphases, what he wanted. 

The main things covered in that session were the cross collar choke from guard (bottom) also incorporating a nice combo involving the leg coming up onto the shoulder which gives lots of options, but also reminded me of something that Dean showed a while back that really creates a lot of leverage for chokes, armbars and triangles.
And then there was sparring…  Oh my god.  It must have been around an hour of full-on sparring.  And remember again – the heat!  Oh the heat!

A succession of tough guys put me through my paces.  I was pleased to hang with most Blue Belts;  the white belts were really good too – hungry and frenetic.  The only higher belt I trained with was Michel.  He destroyed me.  That is all I have to say about that J. 
However, such was the intensity of the rolling and the heat, I actually started feeling pretty ill – I was overheating, could not catch my breath and felt like I would puke.  I didn’t want to pussy out, so just kept going and to be honest, my Jiu Jitsu may have actually improved.  Through lack of energy, I had no option to relax and defend and this created lots of openings.  I guess it also gave me some confidence that even when I have pretty much nothing left, I can still defend myself.
I was so grateful when Michel eventually called time... I could barely stand.  My gi was saturated and I felt wasted. 

We drove back to the hotel, which was next to a Drive through McDonalds.  I drank my way through two large drinks in an attempt to rehydrate and then it was back to the sanctuary of my air-conditioned room.

Training & Private Lesson 1, Friday 26th
On Friday, we spent most of the day in Den Bosch so a few words about the place.  Den Bosch is beautiful.  A really well preserved Medieval city with some of the oldest buildings in Holland, it’s built largely over a network of Canals.  Most people I know have never heard of it and this is reflected by the lack of foreign tourists.  It’s something of a hidden gem as this means it retains all of its Dutch charm – no tacky souvenir shops, no seedy district and none of the usual sub-standard restaurants you normally get with tourist-traps.  Every time we ate out, we experienced a friendly and relaxed social climate, great service and some great food.

We visited St. John’s Cathedral – an awesome Gothic place that it’s hard not to be inspired by.  We also took a boat trip around the canals which gave a relaxing and unique perspective on the city and also sampled the local delicacy – the Bosch Bollen (think a giant profiterole covered in chocolate).

Den Bosch is a great place to walk around – lots of shopping (if that’s your thing), great places to eat and some great things to see and do.  For anyone looking for a relaxed weekend break, I’d really recommend a visit.
Right, tourist info over and back onto training…

Friday’s session was shorter and a little less intense than Thursday’s.  After a similar warm-up we drilled the Upa and the elbow escape.

Rather than sparring, we did positional training – mount…top maintain and submit, bottom escape.  Michel had invited over a guy from another nearby Rickson school – a white belt, but a huge guy, specifically to train with me. It’s not often I get to experience what others experience when I’m holding top  and not often I’m mounted and my knees don’t touch the floor.
It was a sobering experience.  On top, I managed to hold mount but had no finish.  On the bottom, I really struggled two out of three times and he submitted me once with a sort of Ezekiel/knuckle in the mandibular pressure point.  It was really hard and I just could not fashion any kind of effect on his sheer size.  I did escape once, on the third attempt, but it was really just a burst of anger fuelled by frustration rather than any kind of technique.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Michel watching closely, taking notes.  It was this analysis that was to become the basis of the private that I took with Michel after the class.

Private lesson 1
We first worked on the escape from mount – a variation on the elbow escape which Rickson had shown at his seminar.  The key is the foot-hip-shoulder-frame connection and really made a big difference to me – I’ve been focussing on it since and it really has helped massively.

We then moved on to holding mount and playing a more dominant, assertive and submission-focussed game from that position.  The main features here were attacking the collar from the get-go, reacting to the escape attempt by moving to technical mount and then working combinations from there.  My timing and sensitivity need some work, but the concept is there for me.
I’ve never taken a private lesson before so I didn’t really know what to expect.  Fortunately for me, over the previous two sessions, Michel had been watching closely, feeding me opponents in a very deliberate way, and taking notes.  He knew exactly what to work on in the private both technically but also, and importantly, the mind-set.  It’s this that for me, makes Michel a great teacher.  I can see from watching him, experiencing his teaching but also seeing how he watches and guides his students that he has a complete grip on every student, his/her strengths and development areas and where they are on their journey.  His commitment to their development is absolute.

Time and money well spent…

Private Lesson 2, Saturday 27th
So we spent another 2 hours with Michel on Saturday morning.  We started off by recapping the learning from the night before which was a great way to cement the learning.  We then worked on knee-on-stomach, holding posture in, and breaking guard, guard passing.

Again, it was a really useful session and both Simon and I came away with specific action points to work on.
That afternoon, we went into Rosmalen, which is a nice little town where we had lunch (the Dutch do great Satay!) then we drove about an hour to Arnhem to visit the Airborne Museum and then pay our respects at the nearby War Cemetery.  If you’re in that area, both are well worthwhile and I think the cemetery is an essential, moving and humbling experience.

On our return, we went once more into Den Bosch for dinner and experienced the city in full social-swing.  The atmosphere was great and reinforced what a great city it is to just wander and eat out.

Central Training, Sunday 28th
We set off early for the hour’s drive to Gouda.  Here I met Mano, a Brown Belt who I’ve spoken with a number of times, so always good to meet people in person.  I was also hoping to meet Raoul, another Black Belt who runs the school in Amsterdam, but I guess he couldn’t make it – maybe next time!

After the usual warm up we did a bit of drilling.  I think at this point, the previous days’ training were catching up with me and I was finding it hard to keep up and immediately sweating profusely.
The focus for the session was competition, so we started from standing – firstly maintaining base, then moving on to defending against the guard pull.  We then moved on to working out of the under-arm bear-hug, using the frame-away.  Michel then took us all through the 50/50 guard.  This was not from the viewpoint of using it, but mainly recognising it and dealing with it, which, for competition purposes is potentially useful.

It was the first time that I’ve really looked at the 50/50 guard.  I can honestly say that it is not a position I would ever pursue, nor can I really see that without a sort of consensus between opponents, how you could end up in that position.  It felt completely counterintuitive.  I’m not a fan, but glad we covered it.
We rounded the session off with some stand up sparring – going for the take down…winner stays on.  I had limited success and what was really interesting here was the vast difference with Judo.  Much of the defensive posturing in BJJ would simply not be allowed in Judo – you’d be penalised for stalling and leg grabs.  It was good fun and done in great humour, but really exposed how the rule set in Olympic Judo is really oriented to a sport which, like boxing, fashions how the governing body wants athletes to fight rather than how people actually fight.

After the session, we said our goodbyes and headed off for Dunkirk for our Ferry home and all of a sudden our four days of BJJ were over.
It really was a great trip – both culturally and in terms of Jiu Jitsu.  A big thanks to Si for his company and of course to Michel for his time and guidance.  Also thanks to all the other great people we met and trained with – you really made us feel welcome!   Ooss!


Michel Verhoeven Seminar, Sidcup, Saturday 24th August 2013

This visit from Michel was organised by Paul Finn, on the back of Michel’s visit in April.
It was great to see Michel again so soon after our trip, and also to see his right-hand man Joost again.
A number of Paul’s students along with a sprinkling of others were in attendance.  One of those in attendance was prolific blogger and writer Can Sonmez – aka Slideyfoot.  It was great to meet Can – we’ve exchanged messages and views before and I’ve been reading his excellent blog for about as long as I’ve been writing mine, so it was good to finally meet.  Before the session we’d set up an interview between Michel and Can – watch this space to find out where the interview ends up, but it was good for me to sit in and listen to Michel’s story and thoughts on Jiu Jitsu.
Slideyfoot has done a pretty good job of summarising the seminar content here, so he’s saved me the job of doing that, but I will pick up on some of the details I personally took out/remembered.
When practicing the Seoi Nagi throw, it was good to be reminded of the sort of sit-back-and-down hip action that Rickson had shown to affect your opponent’s balance and posture.  With the Osoto Gari, I was also reminded of the back of the knee/hamstring brace instead of the foot sweep that I was shown by Royce.

A nice detail on performing the bent arm-lock was the focus on driving your own elbow to the mat next to your opponent’s ear, rather than focussing on the opponent’s wrist made performing that submission almost effortless.
Covering the cross-collar choke is always good…it’s such a hard thing to do well and the main small detail I picked up here was the straightening THEN the turn of the wrists.  Really does make a huge difference and the variation we were shown was also pretty neat.

Recapping the escapes from mount were another really good reminder of the Private I’d had with Michel and generally, covering all of the fundamentals, like the Upa were a great reminder of things that can get sloppy/lose their edge over time without such reminders.  Effective Jiu Jitsu is fundamentally simple – you can never do enough of this stuff in my opinion.

 Michel Verhoeven, Private lesson, Sidcup, Sunday 25th August 2013
So, on Sunday, I took myself back to Sidcup Dojo, for a couple of hours with Michel.  In my last private in Holland, we’d just started to look at holding posture in guard and guard pass so I wanted to pick up where we’d left off.  We spent almost an hour perfecting the posture in guard and breaking guard.  Fine detail and feedback really helped me develop this.  With most people it’s not a problem area, but one of those things I want to be undeniable in my game – it’s so important as a foundation for the guard pass and subsequent domination.  The main things here were hand placement, the pressure form the hips and the taking of slack in the back of the neck.  Done well, breaking the guard is effortless.

We then looked at the pass itself and this was really a case of tightening up what I already knew.  Michel really helped me create much more control and pressure in this move.
We spent some time looking at cross side – Given my size and some of the “pinning” elements of Judo, this is an important part of my game so Michel asked me to take cross side and bring pressure.  A few minor corrections of my chest position and hand positions had Michel groaning for mercy under the pressure – some great adjustments and feedback!

Finally, we finished up with a little positional training – me starting from top cross-side.  Michel wanted to see me dominating and really putting together a bit of a strategy to go for the submission.  With his guidance, I gradually became a bit more fluid and started opening up options.  For, me, I think, this is the major area I need to develop.  My knowledge of positions and techniques is pretty good, but I really need to work them into a coherent game plan and be able to execute them in combinations when rolling.

Doin’ it for the kids
Michel spent the last part of my private session with my Kids who had come along.  I’ve been teaching my kids Jiu Jitsu in my newly matted out garage for about a month and a half now.  It’s only recently that they’ve shown enough interest and I felt that they were open to learning properly.  I’m using the old Rickson Association Blue Stripe syllabus as a guide for what to teach them and I wanted them to get some feedback and pointers from Michel.

Michel watched as they performed the basic movements from the syllabus:
  • Forward rolling breakfall
  • Rear breakfall
  • Shrimp
  • Upa
  • Teeter-totter
  • Standing up in base

With each, they did well but improved rapidly as Michel corrected minor faults.  He also then covered the four-point base with them.  At the end of the session, he presented them with their first stipe on their white belts.  Both were delighted and I was really proud of them.  They were pretty keen beforehand, but now they are both even more motivated to learn Jiu Jitsu.

I’m so pleased on a number of levels.  That we have something else to share is great, but I also believe that Jiu Jitsu is a great lifestyle, builds great character and is also a highly effective form of self-defence.  It also means that they are active.  They’re already pretty active with various other things, but I believe firmly that kids are at huge physical and mental risk from inactivity these days.  This is something of a personal life-mission on which I’ll write more in future, but much of my attention and effort is currently aimed at children’s activity and Jiu Jitsu is an area where one day, I hope to be able to open up the opportunity to other children in addition to my own.

Anyway, thanks once again to Michel for his time and attention and also for the time spent with my kids – we all got a great buzz from it.  Thanks also to Paul for setting up the weekend.

And finally…
So, as seems the way with this more sporadic way of posting, a rather long post, but with the prevailing theme of my Dutch connection.

I’ll be back in Holland again in October for the Rickson Seminar and I’m hoping I may be able to squeeze in some additional training with Michel that weekend…we’ll see.
I really enjoy the focussed teaching that Michel gives and the sense that he genuinely wants to see you develop.  Whilst in Holland, I really enjoyed being with Team Babytank and feeling part of a club and part of a larger network of people all committed to getting better together.

I spoke in my last post about being something of a Ronin since the demise of Lake House.  Now I feel as if I’ve found a new home, albeit in another country!  Time will tell where this relationship will go, but for now, I hope to be able to visit Holland a few times a year and just enjoy some great training with my new friends. 
Dank u en tot ziens!

Thursday, 11 April 2013

I am Ronin

So, I face interesting since Christmas has been somewhat patchy. I could have predicted the inevitable drop-off of attendance by others following our seminar with Rickson in November. I've managed to keep some consistency, mainly by training with Si, which is always great. However, things are changing...

The landlord of the small industrial unit that has been our gym for the last 6 years, two-thirds of my Jiu Jitsu time, wants it back so we are now without a home. It wasn't much - it was too hot, or too cold, depending on the time of year - it was dirty, falling apart, but it served us well and kept our costs low. A move was always on the cards anyway as Dean moved house and now lives much further away from the gym, meaning a lengthy drive for him.

So, right now, it remains to be seen what the next chapter for our small band will be. And where it will be. I suspect the changes may see some eventual changes in personnel as the additional travel for some will prove difficult. We'll see what happens.

In the meantime though, I'm something of a "Ronin", which is actually a pretty good thing. For some time I've been quite frustrated by my own feelings that I've not really been progressing. I've also seen a good many people that started training around the same time as me achieving good things and well deserved promotions. This is not about the belt I wear at all - Jesus, I've had my blue belt now for coming up to 5 years - It's so faded that people can't tell if it's meant to be blue or faded purple. If I felt that my technical proficiency was keeping up, I'd be happy, but I know it isn't and that's what's frustrating.

For me, this situation means that, in order to train, I can take a pick of the various places and schedules around; (1) to get some training; (2) get a taste of different styles and instruction and; (3) benchmark myself against others beyond my usual training partners. In the run up to my blue belt, this was something I did quite frequently and I really felt it helped me get where I was going. Not least, the challenge of rolling at another club, really sharpened up my game.

So, within a 30 minute drive, I've got options with Carlson Gracie Kent (Tonbridge, Maidstone and Ashford). I know many of these guys from quite some time back - a great bunch of guys who train hard, fight hard and love their Jiu Jitsu. . I've also got options with the small and enthusiastic group at Karasac Kali in Sidcup. I've also got regular Judo once a week on Fridays, which I'm still enjoying and making leisurely progress in.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Carlson Gracie Tonbridge's Friday night open mat. I spoke to Dave Broughton about it, so knew I'd get a nice welcome and I wasn't was really great to see those guys again and, as always, they were genuinely pleased to see me and it was good to see them. As I mentioned some time back in a previous post, I had more adrenalin than usual as I made the short drive to the session - partly knowing that I was going to get some hard sparring and partly wondering how I'd get on. Once I got going, it was all good. Against many blue belts I did OK. Rolling with one big and very strong blue belt was really tough though - and not just because of his size and strength - his technique and movement were also very good. I tapped several times. It was the same story against another big guy who now holds a purple belt. Back when he was a white and blue belt, training with him was tough because of his size and strength, but I was generally able to overcome this. Now is a different story. Gone is the tough Jiu Jitsu and in its place is a technical and dominant purple belt game.

It was these two experiences in particular that were of the most interest to me. One from the perspective of rolling with a guy my size who has less experience but is the same grade and the other from the perspective of rolling a guy who is my size, but who I once had the measure of and is now a higher grade than me. Both good measures of where I'm really at right now. I tapped. A lot. And I'm not bothered by that as each time I learned something new. I spent a while talking to both of them afterwards and they both gave me really good pointers on what they felt from me. My own reflection also drew out things from my own memory that I know, but didn't think to try at the time, so some nice revision too. I guess what bothers me most is my own lack of progression and this experience made this very clear. I'm not bad. I'm a decent blue belt. But I've been training now for coming up to nine years. By now, I should really be more than a decent blue belt. And again, I'm not talking about the actual belt I wear, I'm talking about what I can do.

I think back to when I was focussing on my blue belt and some of the experiences I had then - I could dominate most white belts and give some blue belts a pretty hard time too. I feel, after this amount of time, I should at least be all over other blue belts and hanging with purples, but that isn't happening. Somewhere along the way, I've been left behind.

I've also been training, not with any degree of regularity, with Paul and the crew at Karasac. I've mentioned Paul before, so won't re-cap, but they're a small and really friendly bunch who just want to train good, technical Jiu Jitsu. It's always a pleasure visiting them and I do what I can to pass on what knowledge I have that may help.

Going Dutch

This leads me neatly to talk about this past weekend. I've mentioned in a previous post, Michel Verhoeven - a 4 stripe brown belt under Rickson Gracie and Harold Harder in Holland. I met Michel at Rickson's seminar and it was good to be able to begin that friendship with our new connections in Europe. I first became aware of Michel when he took over the running of schools in Holland for Harold, who took some time out from Jiu Jitsu. Michel was a young but talented blue belt at the time. Fast forward a few years and he's now an accomplished 4 stripe brown belt and quite an athlete. Anyway, Michel messaged me through facebook to say that he was in London this weekend and looking to train. Ordinarily, that would be easy as we had 24/7 access to our old gym. But with this gone, this was not going to be possible. However, the coincidence of Paul's session being on a Sunday, in Sidcup (not far from where Michel was staying) I thought why not set something up there? I would get to train with Michel and the Karasac guys would get some good high level instruction. Winner! And so it was arranged.

Most of the Karasac guys have been training around a year now I guess, so Michel agreed to cover some fundamental stuff. Given this, it was a good opportunity for me to also invite a long-time friend of mine who has been interested in Jiu Jitsu to come along and get a taste. Simon also joined in the fun. We really had a great time... a great technical warm up, nice techniques working shrimp, upa, cross collar choke from back and mount, armlocks and sweeps and topped off with a bit of rolling. Michel taught every technique with great detail and even though for many it was technique that was known, it was the fine detail that made the difference. Michel is clearly a talented guy and a great instructor - we all gained something from the session. During the rolling, Michel tried his hardest to roll with almost everyone. He was great - he was just everywhere..and nowhere. As I tried to escape, he was always one step ahead, if I tried to advance my position, he exploited my movement and swept or submitted me with ease. Just great. He also fed back to me that he felt I was not using my strength or size to my advantage and this is something Simon has said to me before too.

For many years, I've tried hard to work good technique and train light to let technique do the work. I never wanted to be the one that people said "oh, yeah, he beat me but that's because he's a big/heavy/strong guy". I hate that. It's such a pussy thing to say. If I tap you, I tap you because in that instance, I caught you...not because I'm bigger, so to avoid that I've tried to train like a smaller guy. But you know what? I've noticed that smaller guys are usually quicker, or some people are more flexible, some are stronger. And not one of them has ever stopped being quick, flexible or strong when they train with me, and you won't hear me bitching that they only beat me because they were faster, more flexible or whatever. I guess it's called using your attributes. And this feedback tells me I should start using my attributes. So watch more Mr Nice Guy ;P

It was really great to meet up with Michel and share some mat time with him. I personally got a lot from it and I'm sure everyone who trained did too. It's a relationship I hope we can develop from here. Thanks Michel. Check out Michel's website here and a nice little film below (my Dutch is not good but I think you get the drift - nice choice of track too!).

So where does all this leave me at the moment? Well, without a regular club for now. To be clear, I have no intention of moving permanently outside of my Rickson lineage and anyone with loyalty to their lineage will understand that. But Carlson's in Kent give me training options pretty much every day of the week, all the while they'll have me, so I thank them for that and their kind hand of friendship. I will look to do at least one friday open mat with them a month - I want to continue with my Judo, so will do that 3 weeks out of four with 1 Friday in four over there. I'll see how the rest of the schedules fit in. Then there's Sunday Eve's at Sidcup. It's easy to get to and always a good little session so I may look to do that with more regularity.

All in all, this" Ronin" period in my training could be a really good thing, so I look forward to a new order emerging from the chaos.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Breathe with me!

I've talked in recent posts about Rickson's demonstrations and explanations of his breathing techniques.  Ever since I've been training with Dean, I've noted the train-like, rhythmic breathing he practices when training hard.  It's something that a lot of people that have trained with Rickson imitate and I've personally found, even with a poor understanding of the physiology of breathing, breathing in an audibly rhythmic way, at the very least, creates a focus on the breath.  A focus that's easy to forget when you're training hard and if you lose that focus, it can become very hard to remember to actually breathe - something a lot of beginners will identify with!

So, on the recent occasions that I've trained with Rickson, he spent some time explaining his belief in correct breathing method and the benefits he draws from his own education in this area.  Neither explanations were particularly about how  to do it, but more why we should do it.  In the sessions at our club, Rickson went further in talking about how he combines his breathing with movement to create a unique workout, which is documented in "Choke".

Just after the seminar, Richard sent me some links and details of books related to the things that Rickson had talked about, which have been great (cheers Rick), so in this post I aim to give an overview of some of the things that I've gleaned from listening to Rickson and my subsequent reading.  I'll start with the breathing and then move on to Bio-Ginastica, something which Rickson gave great credit to for his own conditioning.

What have we become?
It seems that a lifetime of poor practice, posture and lifestyle has reduced our natural ability to breathe to a series of shallow and inefficient breaths.  Just stop for a second and think about how you breathe normally.  Chances are, like me, that you breathe into the top part of your chest.  As you do, you chest expands and your collar bones and shoulders raise slightly.  Occasionally you'll take a "deep" breath where your chest expands more fully and your abdomen raises too.  Have you ever considered why your body makes you take these additional deep breaths?

Rickson focussed on the shape of the lungs.  Take a look at this picture.
Fig1. Diaphragmatic Breathing

As he pointed out, a lot of the volume of the lungs is in the lower parts of the organs.  So, by breathing at the top of our lungs we are not utilising the full capacity of our lungs.  This is particularly clear when we are "fighting" for breath due to fatigue.  With our minds fixed on the sensation of fatigue and the need to get more air, we normally breathe harder and faster, but still only at the top of our lungs .  The fight for air is one we'll surely lose, as, breathing in this way, we'll never take in as much air as we really need.  Watch someone who's been exercising hard - chances are their shoulders will be up and down like a yo yo.

Now, we all know that to live, we need to breathe. But in his book, "Hatha Yoga - The Yogi Philosophy of Physical Wellbeing", Yogi Ramacharaka gives a detailed explanation of the physiology of breathing and the health impacts of not breathing properly.  I'm not going to spend a great deal of time going over this but suffice to say that we know that putting oxygen into the blood is vital for proper function.  It follows that the more oxygen we have, the better that function will be.

He talks about the misunderstanding of deep breathing and abdominal breathing, whereas he, and Rickson, advocate diaphragmatic breathing, which, to the uninitiated looks like abdominal breathing.  Ramacharaka also talks about "Complete" breathing, which I'll take a look at now.

In "low" or abdominal breathing, we are drawing air into the lower and more voluminous parts of our lungs.  Now, this is preferable to shallow and inefficient high breathing, but the lack of movement of the diaphragm means that we are still not expanding the lungs to full capacity and we are still not utilising the mid-space, or the top of the lungs - we are far from breathing at full capacity.  Take a look again at figure 1.

The thoracic diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity.  When we breath in, it contracts and creates more space in the thoracic cavity for the lungs to expand.  It stands to good reason then, that if we can manipulate or control the diaphragm, then we can create additional breathing capacity (interestingly, both Rickson and Ramachakara also talk about how controlled movement of the diaphragm also facilitates a beneficial gentle massage of the internal digestive organs).

Ramachakara talks about being able to manipulate the diaphragm to facilitate deep breathing and then, in one continuous breath, also facilitating breathing into the mid part of the lungs (thoracic breathing) and finally drawing up the shoulders to facilitate high or "Siphon" breathing.  In this way, we are able to utilise the entirety of the lungs, or "complete" breathing.  I've now tried this quite regularly. It is relatively easy, but requires a little bit of mindfulness (a clue that we're not normally mindful of the most fundamental action our body performs).  When achieved, you do feel good - refreshed and alert and the proof is in the exhalation.
Fig 2: Three types of breathing

Try this:  breath high, then exhale slowly and count.  Breathe low (abdominally), exhale and count - it's probably longer than the high breath.  Now do a complete breath, exhale and again, count.  I bet it's longer still - testament to the extra capacity that you've created and life source that you've inhaled.

Ramachakara advocates practicing this and over time developing this as a new breathing habit. - seems sound advice to me.

A second feature of Rickson's approach to breathing concerns exhalation.  It's natural to fixate on inhalation - we need air to live, but in order to breathe in effectively, we also need to be-able to breathe out.  The air being expelled from our lungs is also doing a vital job in exporting waste from our bodies and in order for new air to enter, space needs to be created.  We often consider that the "working" phase of breathing is the inhalation - we "fight" for breath when we are exhausted - a very active notion.  And yet, it is Rickson's belief that the opposite is true - the most active phase in exhalation.  We must manipulate our diaphragm to expel what Rickson calls the "black gas" from our lungs (a very good visual analogy).  Ramachakara talks in his book about "cleansing" breaths which involved strong and rapid emptying of the lungs.  Inhalation is actually then a very voluntary action as air rushes into the empty cells of the lungs.

So here, we have two parts of the whole and something to bear in mind the next time you are fatigued - by focussing on breathing we can find far more effective ways of both inhaling and exhaling and I think this philosophy really shows how it's a natural skill that, for all of our apparent civilisation and intelligence, we've somehow unlearned .

So with breathing explored, Rickson went on to talk about movement.  Now, I've spoken about fundamental human movement before in this blog and the link with Ramachakara continues in that Rickson's chosen source of movement also stems from Hatha Yoga.  In conversation, he credits much of his own journey into movement, breathing and Yoga to a guy called Orlando Cani - the creator of Bio-Ginastica.  Cani, a Brazilian, is, amongst many other physical education accomplishments, a Hatha Yoga adept.  Combining his physical education knowledge, with elements of Tai Chi, Meditation, and gymnastics, he has created a system which works around the principles of animal-inspired movements.  Again, some of this is display in the clip of Rickson from Choke and there's more information on Cani's website as well as some nice examples on YouTube.

Readers of this blog may recall that in a previous post, I talked about Ginastica Natural under Alvaro Romano.  Until I heard form Rickson about Cani, I'd never heard of him, but, it transpires that Romano originally worked for Cani and, it seems, took Cani's work and re-branded it.  Read more about that in this interesting article.  Cani seems more bemused and disappointed in this turn of events than angry, but it all seems to add perhaps an air of well-marketed emperor's new clothes to Romano's work.  Maybe I'm wrong, maybe Romano has moved in a different direction or evolved in some other way.  It's just interesting to note.

Packaged as a whole, hearing Rickson talk about his philosophy on breathing and physical conditioning and seeing in person his condition as a 54 year old, it's compelling stuff.  Stuff that I've enjoyed looking further into and stuff that I feel can only be of benefit to me in both general health terms but also in my Jiu Jitsu.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The best meal I ever tasted...

Rickson Gracie Private Classes, Kent, UK: 14th & 15th Nov 2012

Looking back on last year, it was an amazing one in terms of Jiu Jitsu.  Who'd have thought it could get any better?  Well, it did.

With Rickson in Europe (Seminars in Holland and his first UK Seminar in Glasgow with Royce Gracie Black Belt Scott McVeigh), Dean contacted Rickson to ask if he'd have time to visit our club. And so, the date was set.

Ever since Dean first started training with Rickson back in April 1998, it's been his avowed wish to have Rickson teach at his own club.  Last week that dream came true.  And it was a dream come true for fourteen others, including me.  The sessions were closed except to those that have trained with Dean over the years - a reward for loyalty to Dean, and Rickson's style of Jiu Jitsu.  And it was this that made it a unique experience.  It was basically classes with Rickson as our instructor.  Because of the size of the event, whilst it was Rickson and some of the content was the same, it was entirely different from the seminar, and through this post, I'll say why.

Unusually for our club (;P) everyone arrived early, mats out, photo of Helio on the wall, nervously waiting for Rickson to arrive.  Eventually, in he walked with his swiss ball under his arm.  Rickson was with us, in our club!  But somehow it felt like it was always that way.  He was so relaxed, it just seemed like another training session.  We all warmed up, watching out the corners of our eyes as Rickson did his own extensive warm up using the ball.  Then we started.  Dean gave a heartfelt speech about his allegiance to Rickson and Rickson returned the favour with a warm speech about being with Dean and his students, then after a quick bow to GM Helio and each other, we began.  Again, it's not my intention here to talk about the techniques, or to even attempt to explain execution, except to say that every movement, every position, leverage and connection were the order of the day.

Rickson was clear and exacting in his delivery and here was the first benefit of this small group experience.  Rickson was able to watch every single pair like a hawk and often stepped in with hands on, minor corrections.  With just a movement of a hand, or leg,  by two inches, suddenly, everything worked.  Effortlessly.  It was almost like being hypnotised - "when I touch you , you'll be able to execute perfect Jiu Jitsu".  Sure, you can do a technique and make up for doing it badly by being strong or aggressive.  But this proved that when done correctly, it almost feels like cheating (in fact I think Rickson used those words).

THIS is Jiu Jitsu.  After this experience, I'd have to say saying that a good many people (and I still include myself in this as my skill level is still quite low) do not train Jiu Jitsu in the way that Rickson understands it - many people train grappling whilst wearing a gi, using techniques that come from Jiu Jitsu.  BUT, the Jiu Jitsu is in  the details, in the connections, in the effortless and undeniable execution of techniques.  I'm sure (in fact I know) that there will be people out there who will read this blog and dismiss this as more dogma from a Rickson adherent.  And if you've trained with Rickson and still think that, then cool, you're welcome to your opinion.  But if you've never trained with Rickson and still want to believe that what you're doing is Jiu Jitsu and all this is just hype, then, well, I guess that's OK too, but I promise, you're deluding yourself.  As Rickson would say, "no my got nothin'."

The other difference in this small group setting was the ability to have Rickson show you first hand.  He actually did a pretty good job in Holland, given the numbers of getting round people, but here, everyone had the chance to feel what Rickson was looking for.  And this is why it's "invisible" Jiu Jitsu - you can see a technique and kind of understand what is happening, but unless you feel perfect execution, you can't appreciate the technique in its fullness.  It's like looking at a cook-book.  You can see a nice picture of the food and you can read about the ingredients.  You might even be able to imagine what the end product will taste like.  But,unless you actually eat the meal, then you'll never really know how good it tastes and smells.

Looking back over my notes, we got through quite a lot on that first night and it whizzed by in double quick time.  At the end of the session, I was able to give over something quite special to Rickson.

Knowing that the visit was on, I got in touch with Seymour Yang, (AKA Meerkatsu), BJJ artist extraordinaire to see if he would do a special piece of artwork for Rickson's visit.  We settled on a design of a bear, in Rickson's trademark fighting stance, wearing Rickson's red and black belt.

The reasoning behind the bear was due to an account I'd seen of Pedro Sauer talking about a T-Shirt Rickson had printed back in the early 90s which showed the Gracies and Prof. Sauer as animals, based on the animal nicknames given to them by Helio.  Rickson was represented by the Bear.

Take a look at the clip here:

Amazingly, my instructor Dean still has one of these T-shirts from one of
his earliest visits to LA - quite a museum piece!

Anyway, after a few emails, Meerkatsu's final designs arrived and went ontoT-shirts for the lucky attendees and a limited run of fine art prints (10 only).  More on the prints later.  I'm sure you'll agree that Meerkatsu's
anthropomorphism of Rickson is up there with his best designs - and great for him to have such legend wear one of his designs! 
Big thanks to Seymour for his time and efforts!

On the second session, everyone felt a bit more relaxed around Rickson after our experience the night before.  Whilst warming up, Rickson explained how he uses the swiss ball for his warm ups and conditioning, along with other props such as elastics for resistance.  He then spent 20 minutes talking about his breathing, which was every bit as captivating as it was in Holland.  In fact, he went further and talked about his training in Bio-Gymnastics with
Orlando Cani - the original stuff before Alvaro Romano left Cani and started Ginastica Natural.  Fascinating stuff and definitely worthy of further investigation.....more to come in another post sometime.

Then on to the main session.  More great stuff and a defence against being grabbed and driven forwards from the rear which was brilliant.  Not much else to say - as before the instruction was brilliant and Rickson gave all of himself to the session.  I never felt that he was giving anything less than 100%.  He did speak at some length on his philosophy of Jiu Jitsu and the direction of travel for the art and the sport. It was nothing particularly that you can't find on YouTube, but seen in person, you could feel his conviction that Jiu Jitsu competition is driving Jiu Jitsu away from its roots and served to reinforce my view that Jiu Jitsu based on strength, athleticism, aggression and scoring points is not Jiu Jitsu as I understand it from Rickson. When asked, he also talked with knowledge and enthusiasm about teaching kids Jiu Jitsu - something I would love to do at some point and gave an interesting insight into his family culture.

After the session, Rickson was generous with his time in taking photos and signing stuff - another benefit of the smaller session (I didn't even try in Holland as there were so many people trying to get their shot).  Two of the things that Rickson signed was a copy of the aforementioned print of Meerkatsu's work and a patch from Tap Cancer Out.  Please check out their website and go buy one of their great patches (it won't cost you much, looks great on your Gi and raises money for a great cause!) or a t-shirt, again designed by the ubiquitous and ridiculously talented Meerkatsu.

Anyway, both these items were sent to Tap Cancer Out and were auctioned off to raise important funds.  Check them out on facebook to keep up with their work.

Of course, I kept one of those bad boys for myself and it now has pride of place in my front room:

After both sessions, I found it really hard to sleep - just thinking about what he'd said, what I learned...just the buzz!  I am very fortunate to have been part of it all - fortunate to be Dean's student and fortunate to be around at this time.  Rickson is a legend of our art and he's alive right now....not some black and white photo on the wall - he's here and he's passing on, in person, a lifetime of accumulated experience and knowledge.  And I'm in the middle of it!  Don't get me wrong, I'm under no illusion...this will not suddenly make me a great Jiu Jitsuka, but it will deepen my knowledge and understanding and will definitely contribute to my journey to become the best Jiu Jitsuka that I can be.

Happy days.  I hope it's not too long until we see him again.