Thursday, August 26, 2010

Riding the Crane, Preparing For Class

     A couple of days ago I was reflecting on how classes were conducted in my old Omaha school and I stopped and considered how classes typically began.  Everyone was called to line up (by the beating of two sticks) and then to sit in the formal position known as ho-tzo (in Japanese, seiza).  This position is actually on the knees with the feet resting under the buttocks.  The translation of "ho-tzo" means literally, "crane-riding" because the ancients thought that this was how one would sit if one ever climbed onto the back of a giant crane and soared into the heavens.  Never having insomuch as ever having seen a giant crane, I always suspected that this uncomfortable position was actually created by someone who hated human beings and worked lots of overtime to find the most painful positions for them to stand or sit.
     It has fallen into disuse in China; the chair was put into widespread use there a long time ago but the Japanese held onto this formal sitting posture for many generations - largely due to their disdain of things like chairs and other forms of furniture, which were raised high off the floor.  Nowadays, most Japanese no longer utilize this form of sitting - it takes a long time to get used to it - but it is still frequently seen in their martial arts schools.
     Many Japanese martial arts schools have students begin in this position, practice a basic breathing exercise, and perform a formal kneeling bow prior to training.  In the old Omaha school, students began in this position and calmed their spirits with a breathing technique before standing up and bowing from that position.  I remember back when I was a student and my teacher(s) said that we should meditate prior to training.  This always confused me.  One cannot really meditate after sitting for only a minute or so, which is about how long we sat.  Over the years I changed the function from "meditation" to calming one's spirit via breathing techniques, getting "centered", and preparing the mind and spirit for class/training.
     I was recently poring over some old martial arts writing and came across some material from a very famous (now deceased) teacher.  He said that beginning the class with seiza was important because it naturally develops and enhances a spirit of etiquette which, in turn, has a strong impact on how the student approaches training.  It is, he said, a civilized and formal form of sitting/holding oneself and a source of natural etiquette, which is imprinted on people's minds. 
     Because proper etiquette is central to correct training, he felt that this form of sitting before class is essential.  "An upright body is related to an upright mind," he said as he explained the importance of having the highest regard and respect for the individual student.   Each student must regard his/her peers (as well as the teacher AND him/her self) with the highest respect if he/she is going to really achieve anything in training.  Each student must maintain a high regard for what his/her teaches as well as his/her own individual training.  It was felt that beginning class in the formal seated position helped students (and teachers) approach the subject of what is about to be taught as well as preparing themselves for class.
     I have to agree.  Certainly, it's not always possible to begin class in this way (when training outdoors, for example), but it's probably best to begin class in this manner whenever possible. 
     I used to study things like how students pre-class attitudes affected their individual training as well as the atmosphere of the whole class, and how this could be altered for the better.  There were a handful of students who, due to injuries or handicaps, were unable to assume the formal sitting position at the beginning of class...but there were far more who were just plain uncomfortable in it (and often claimed, "I CAN'T sit like this!").  Being uncomfortable and being physically unable to sit in this way are two different things.  And although we giggle as we recall those days, there's a serious side to it -
     Remember the students who never tried to master this position?  Remember how they always complained about it and how they'd "fake" it by finding some way around it (they'd sit in a posture similar to, but not exactly like, the correct position).  None of them made it into the senior grades.  Why?  Well, there are many reasons but you can bet that one of them involved the unwillingness to endure anything which was uncomfortable.  Another things was usually that instead of doing a movement correctly (which can be uncomfortable at first), they'd "fake" it by doing something similar to it (which was more comfortable)...they didn't learn how to do things correctly because they were overly-concerned with their own personal comfort.  They didn't have the determination; the spirit to learn how to do martial arts correctly.
     The manner in which the students and teachers conduct themselves at the beginning of class directly impacts the spirit of the class, how the training is conducted and material is presented, and how effeciently the students absorb it.  It seems like a small, insignificant thing but it is really very important.  If the beginning of the class is very informal, students will not take training seriously (even if they think they do).  This brings up an interesting point - just when does class begin?
     Class begins when everyone lines up.  This should not be done too casually.  It's an important part of the training/learning process.  If the approach to training is formal and serious, so will the training be and the students will get a lot more out of it.  It's pretty much impossible to begin a class in a casual manner and then try to get serious at some point during the class.  It just doesn't work.  Additionally, students actually expect some measure of formality in a martial arts class; a class which maintains a fairly formal structure actually suffers fewer dropouts than those which apply a more "casual" approach.  At least that's been my observation after more than 40 years of teaching.
     I remember a small aikido class I attended back in college.  The instructor carried a small photo of the founder, Morihei Uyeshiba, into the class and set it up at the front of the room.  At the beginning of class, students and teacher exchanged formal kneeling bows and then bowed to the photo to pay respects to the founder.  Old-fashioned Chinese schools used to do something similar except that in lieu of a photo, they had the founder's name written on red paper at a small shrine.  Sometimes the names of the heads of the system (if the system was very old) were also included.  In China, a name on red paper or a person's name written in red ink indicates that that person is deceased - I once signed a traveller's check in China with a red-ink pen and they refused to take it because they thought that I would be putting a curse on myself....but that's another story.
     This kind of formal structure prior to class adds to the atmosphere, the spirit of the class and the overall approach to training.  It may seem rather foreign to us (as Americans) and even pointless, but there's a good reason for it.
     When I practice at home, I usually begin by sitting in this way and preparing my mind and spirit for training.  It may seem pointless since there's no one here to instruct me and I'm not leading a class, but it impacts my attitude
     Traditional Japanese iaido (the art of drawing and cutting with a live blade) is practiced mostly from this position.  When I train at home, I do it as it should be done unless I'm outside on wet, soggy ground.  In fact, in an iaido class, the beginning of class is very formal and every little thing has to be done just so - from how you enter the training area to how you sit, how and where you place the sword, how you insert the sheathed sword into your belt (obi) and so on.  Believe it or not, I always begin my own private training in this way - because it has an effect on the spirit of the whole session and the way in which I regard myself as well as my sword.
     I remember when I attended elementary and high school, there were strict dress codes, which were enforced by all of the teachers and staff.  Woe to anyone who violated the code and, being just a little rebellious, we loathed it.  But it had value.  Eventually, such codes were largely eschewed because parents complained about them and "student's rights."  So now we have kids attending school in clothes that look like they've been on the losing end of an Asian land war...and their attitudes match their clothing.  You rarely find kids who attend school in nice, conservative clothing getting low grades.
     As outside, so inside.
     We used to end class in the same way - by sitting and calming the spirit and preparing to go back out into the world, and evaluating what had been taught and learned.  Everyone had a chance to calm down and center him/her self before bowing and leaving.  It made a very real difference - not only in how students approached training and how well they absorbed the material and performed, but in numbers of students who regularly attended training.

1 comment:

  1. another not only profound, but absolutely useful dissertation. thank you and keep em coming!!