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.