Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Breaking Balance

    In Japanese grappling arts such as Judo, kuzushi refers to breaking the opponent's balance.  There is no special Chinese term for this particular art...and it is an art unto itself.
     In Judo and other highly sophisticated grappling arts, kuzushi was once practiced most assiduously.  After all, it's very difficult to throw an opponent whose balance is intact.  Not only is it difficult to throw him, it's very risky because he's easily capable of countering any attempt to bring him down.  He can quickly apply powerful striking or grappling techniques of his own.
     Learning how to break the opponent's balance and use his own force against him is in keeping with one of Judo's famous maxims which reminds its practitioners to always strive to obtain "maximum effect with minimum effort."  There's a lot more to that statement than meets the eye.
     If an opponent pushes against you and you push back or try to hold your ground, you are resisting him.  In this situation, the stronger person will win.  However, if you yield to him and pull him in the direction he is pushing, you can easily gain control of his movement.
     The same is true if the opponent pulls you towards himself.  If you yield to his force and push him in the direction he's pulling, his balance is easily broken and he can be brought under control without too much difficulty.
     In both cases the object is to yield to the opponent's force and thereby displace his center of balance.  Once that's achieved, he's helpless unless he is able to regain his balance.
     It occurs to me that in the practice of Aikido the art of breaking balance is a little more subtle.When the opponent attacks his mind/intention (yi) leads his body.  A skilled Aikidoka (practitioner of Aikido) is capable of exploiting this fact.  When an aggressor attacks him, the Aikido enthusiast will allow or cause him to over-extend his body by subtly encouraging him to over-extend his yi.  When this is done, the aggressor's movement and force can easily be intercepted and redirected.
     In both of these grappling forms, students move from the grossly overt to the fine and subtle.  That is, a beginning Judo student often fails to attempt to apply kuzushi at all.  He'll grunt and strain as he tries to literally lift up his opponent and throw him down.  As he continues to practice (and study) he'll discover the importance of kuzushi.  At that point he usually grabs his opponent's jacket in a death-grip and starts yanking, pulling, and pushing in outwardly gross attempts to effect kuzushi.
     But the technique of the master Judoist is much more subtle.  Knowing that taking a death-grip on his opponent's jacket can lead to entanglement, joint twists, and other problems, he gently "hooks" his partner's jacket with his fingertips and a delicate touch.
     His touch is delicate so that he can feel his opponent's movements (and thereby detect his intentions).  This is not unlike tui-shou (push-hands) exercises.  When he unbalances his opponent it is done so subtly that the opponent himself is often unaware of it until he's airborne.
     An Aikido novice often focuses on how to turn the joint or arm or whatever and pays little or no attention to the concept of kuzushi.  He uses his own strength in an attempt to force his partner's joint to turn this way or that and after just a few minutes of practice, he's soaked with sweat.
     The master seems to glide along a current of air and his uke (the receiver; the person being thrown) often feels that he has no control over himself at all.  He is caught up in a whirlwind of movement which may result in his being tossed several feet away or brought down in a painful joint-twist.  The more effort he uses to attack the master, the easier it is for the master to throw him or bring him into submission.
     The idea in both arts is to allow or cause the opponent to extend his center of gravity beyond the structure of his physical foundation.  Once this is done, the opponent has (unconsciously) placed himself in an untenable position and a skilled grappler will quickly take advantage of it.
     In the striking arts of Karate and Kung-Fu, the idea of kuzushi is largely unheard of nowadays.  This is unfortunate because it's just as applicable to them as it is to their grappling cousins.  Many practitioners of these arts prefer to stand their ground, not giving an inch as the opponent attacks forcefully.  They resist his strength with their own strength but as you know from looking at the previous examples, in such a situation the stronger force will win.
     Kuzushi in these kinds of arts is much more subtle than it is in the grappling arts.
     The same thing is true in Japanese Kenjutsu (fencing).  The two swordsmen face each other with their weapons positioned just so.  There is very little overt movement.  No hopping around like a rabbit on amphetamines.  The first person to make an error will be struck down instantly.  They are focused on what they're doing; joining their minds to "feel" each other's intent.
     Obviously, if one swordsman stumbles he becomes a popular breakfast food...toast.  But there's little chance of that because they've trained long and hard to maintain their physical balance.
     If either fighter initiates an attack with a large, gross movement he'll be struck down instantly. 
     They're not just standing still and admiring each other's pretty eyes.  They're "feeling" each other's minds and spirits.  If one swordsman's spirit should become "unbalanced"; if it should weaken for only a moment, the fight will be brought to a sudden end because his opponent will sense it and strike him down.
     This kind of kuzushi is extremely subtle.
     And it's the same kind of kuzushi that should be applied to the striking arts of Karate and Kung-Fu.  In some forms of karate this is known as "the moment of vulnerability", or kyo.  In Chinese it can be called ko (meaning, "opening" or "hole"). 
     In Judo and Aikido, student go from the gross to the subtle.  That is, they begin with actual physical contact - grabbing.  Because of this initial contact, it's easier to detect your opponent's intentions and to feel when his physical, mental, or spiritual balance is disturbed.  This skill must move from the gross to the subtle.  Otherwise, the student's skill will never develop beyond the stage of a novice.
     This same kind of practice is found in the tui-shou exercises of Chinese Taijichuan and related arts.
There is a story told about Dr. Jigaro Kano (founder of Judo) when he was challenged by a British boxer who claimed that Kano's grappling art was no match for western fisticuffs.  Kano was dressed in a business suit but agreed to demonstrate the effectiveness of his art.  The two contestants squared off.  Kano reached into the breast pocket of his suit jacket and deflty tossed a handkerchief into the air.  The boxer glaned at it and Kano skillfully took advantage of the moment to throw the boxer (cushioning his head so that he wouldn't be injured when he hit the ground). 
     There's more to the story than just a chuckle.  Kano deliberately distracted his opponent by unbalancing his mind.  And as I've said before, mental balance and physical balance are inseparable.  Once his opponent's mental balance was disturbed, his physical balance was likewise (although very subtly) disturbed.  And he was vulnerable.  Kano's technique was so fine that he was able to take advantage of that micro-second and throw his opponent.
     In a couple of films, one of Morihei Uyeshiba's (founder of Aikido) best students, Gozo Shioda, was seen dropping his opponents with no more than a touch.  As they advanced and attacked, he would move and touch them on the chin or throat and they'd go flying backward.  It wasn't magic.  When the film was slowed down, it could be seen that Shioda's touch made contact as just the right instant - when his opponents were in the final stage of transferring their weight onto their advancing foot...and then they were suddenly (although gently) caught by his touch.  This caused their minds to move backward which resulted in a severe loss of physical balance and they were easily thrown down.  It was a masterful demonstration of both kuzushi and breaking the opponent's rhythm.
     Sadly, most contemporary practitioners remain at the gross level and never progress to the finer, more subtle levels.  In Judo this has resulted in what one of my senior students calls "Brute-Do" (or Brudo for short); using one's brute force in outwardly gross attempts to manhandle and forcefully throw the opponent.
     Kuzushi applies to more than just the opponent's physical stance and balance.  It also applies to his mental and spiritual "balance."  You have to learn how to truly apply kuzushi and then polish your technique so that you can apply it effectively when the opportunity presents itself.
     Then when you have learned how to apply it to your training partner, study to see how it can be applied conflicts you encounter in your daily life.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post...I teach and emphasize kuzushi in our karate system (mostly cause I've studied aikido and tai chi as well). Being a smaller man, kuzushi is the only way for me to be truly effective...and the older I get the easier it is. Kuzushi takes lots of practice and is well worth the time and effort. Thanks for the great lesson. Hands palm to palm.