Sunday, 20 October 2013

Roots Research: Sumō - 20 October 2013

A little while ago I posted on some of the reasons and benefits of spending some time studying the traditional martial arts, so in line with this idea, a few weeks ago we had the pleasure of a 2hr introduction session into the ancient art of Sumō wrestling here at Jikishin Dojo Auckland. The idea for this came about through a number of facts and influences. In Kashima Shinryū we frequently practice shiko, the stamping of sumo wrestlers prior to a bout, as part of our warm-up. Our teacher Inaba Sensei from the Shiseikan Budojo in Meiji Jingu Tokyo considers shiko to be one of the most fundamental exercises of Budo practice - as a means to train awareness and lowering of the kafuku tanden, the centre-point of our body. Incidentally, Minoru Akuzawa of Aunkai, whose work I have increasingly been following from afar over the last two years, likewise includes shiko into his curriculum of fundamental body development exercises - his emphasis in the exercises being that of the diagonal connection of the left and right side of the Body. However it is not just shiko, but Sumō in general that is considered to be fundamental, at least to all of Japanese Budō, and so Jigoro Kano (the founder of Judo) and Morihei Ueshiba (the founder of Aikido) both also had a strong background and foundation in Sumō.  

Put together, all of this was enough for me to go out, do some research and finally get in touch with and meet Dr. Howard Gilbert, Sumō researcher, wrestler and Secretary General of the NZ Sumoō Federation, who agreed to visit us and share some of his knowledge with us at Jikishin Dojo.

Meeting and training with Howard was an incredibly illuminating experience for me, as it clarified the origin and backdrop of so many things we practice in Aikido and KSR. I have already touched upon Shiko (stamping) and Koshiwari (the sumo squat), of which we did quite many on the day (...), for the development of body connection and the kafuku tanden. It was interesting for me to hear that the point of shiko is not to raise the leg higher and higher, but that it is actually to practice one's control of the entire movement. These exercises also form part of a whole range of exercises that further address the development of strength, flexibility and coordination in the hips. Amongst these would also be matawari (sumo splits), and unko suwari (literally: sitting like your shitting...) - the low end range squat, which is also practiced extensively in KSR and Systema. Marking another significant overlap between Aikido, KSR and Sumo, the stable, solid or full base developed with the above exercises should be accompanied with a relaxed upper body which allows the wrestler to feel and go with the movements of the opponent without coming of balance. 

Amongst the forces impacting on the wrestler, next to the full (upper)body clash that can commonly be observed in Sumō bouts, is tsuppari - the repeated open palm thrusts against the opponents upper body. Though these are traditionally practiced against a wooden pole (called 'teppo') during warm-up or technique training, which we didn't have at hand, we at least ran through some of the technical ideas behind it, which again provided for some interesting observations. The first point is that the tsuppari are generally delivered with the hand and foot of the same side coming forward (a common theme in the Japanese martial arts), as opposed to standard walking patterns in which the hand and foot of the opposite side come forward during stepping. I am not entirely clear about this point yet, but I believe it is to increase stability and put additional power behind the thrusting motion. The second point is that the elbows are to be kept close to the body at all times, so that the thrust is driven forward from the middle of the body. This is precisely the position that we try to keep our elbows in when holding the sword in KSR, and even though I only limited exposure so far, reminded me very much of the punching done in the Chinese schools of Wing Chun and Hsing I. Next to providing the foundation for a strong push with power from the whole body, the idea behind this is also to prevent a potential under-hook from the opponent that could be used in preparation of a throw. In the photos below you will see us practicing tsuppari, sliding our feet along the mat as we are pushing our hands and arms forward, as well as me being thrown after one of those preparatory under-hooks... A good flight it was I can tell you..

Though there is surely a lot more detail to all things Sumō, I thought that it was interesting that is not all that much more in terms of technique training. As we didn't have the traditional sumo belts/gear we couldn't cover much of the work that can be done in terms of grappling with the help of those. What seemed to much more important to me anyhow was that Sumō wrestler simply don't put that much focus on training technique. Much rather, they focus on the above mentioned body development training, get a basic understanding of palm thrusts and grappling and from there go on to explore what is called jibun-no-sumo - doing and finding the style of sumo that bests suits you, your body and your spirit. I find this a really good concept that is very closely in line with my current research and practice. Contrary to the tendency to spend an enormous amount of time on practicing myriads of techniques and variations of them, which as I find is most prevalent in Aikido, the idea here is to spend much more time on the development and understanding  of our body-and-mind and how we can put it to use in such a way that it becomes 'martial' if so needed. From such a point, a body and mind developed this way, (so called) 'techniques' can then emerge as a spontaneous answer to the requirements of each new situation as it arises, regardless of their name, style, or place within a teaching and grading curriculum and are not a result of one's thinking, but the actual feeling of what is happening. 
I won't go into this much further here, but I've enjoyed hearing that this idea can actually be found at the very origin of Japanese Budō and I feel my connection with this origin to be strengthened through this experience as a whole and all the concepts, terms, exercises and ideas that I learned.

The last point that I was able to really connect to and link to particularly our practice of KSR  was the tachiai - the standing meet at the start of the bout where both wrestlers are facing each other, each behind their line with all their energy gathered in their lower abdomen, just about ready to leap forward at each other. The incredibly charged feeling that arises in this situation reminded me exactly of the point in our KSR forms in which we exit the initial crossing of the swords and get into whichever the starting position of the moment is. When we practice KSR and face each other with our practice swords I get this sense of their being something very real and in fact quite scary about to happen. It was interesting to hear that traditionally in sumo it was not the referee who decided when the bout would begin, but it was actually the wrestlers that would start by themselves in a moment where they felt their breath to be synchronised. Although I have never heard such an instruction being given in KSR, I can relate to the idea and its feeling very much. Skilled martial artists definitely make use of not just observing their own, but also their opponents breathing, so consider that next time your facing someone with a wooden sword in hand, or whichever other way you practice. 

Well, and that is that, some processed recollections of our recent expedition into the world of Sumō. If you are curious about it, get in touch with me and I'll get you connected with some peeps here in NZ. And if you're more than just curious, the Oceania Championships 2014 are going to be held down in Wellington next June with at least three weight classes (<85kg and beyond). I believe that the NZ Sumo Federation (which is organising this) is always keen for people to entering and I must admit that somewhere in the back of my head I am toying with the idea of doing so myself... anyone maybe keen to form a team and get together for some training!? Should be fun..