I’ve begun teaching a new martial arts class at the university in Launceston, simply because they have the finest judo floor I’ve ever personally seen, let alone rolled upon. We had our third session last night, and there were a few more folks along which was good: it’s not a cheap floor to rent, and aside from wanting more people to train with I’d also like to defray the basic expenses!

One of the newcomers last night was actually a highly skilled martial arts instructor in his own right. He holds a fistful of higher belt gradings in Hapkido, and teaches a stylw called ‘chon jo’ (which I have probably spelled wrong), and on Monday nights he teaches me how to fight with the English shortsword after the style of George Silver, through the Stoccata School of Defense.  Suffice to say that having him on my dojo floor as a student was bemusing, to say the least.

Nevertheless: Matthew (the chap in question) is open-minded and flexible in his approach, and he was actually a tremendous asset during the class. I know he picked up a couple things — a break-fall technique which isn’t part of the set he’s used to, for example — and at the same time, I learned a couple of interesting things from him. In the aftermath, I stopped to think about what was going on, or more accurately, why I ‘teach’ the way I do.

The art which in which I instruct is ju-jitsu. I’m not with one of the koryu versions: those beautifully costumed and choreographed exercises which preserve a remarkable slice of Japan’s warrior history. Nor am I part of — strictly — a goshin-ryu, dedicated to street defense. Instead, I’ve been trained (through a few schools now) by instructors who have led me to understand that effective ju-jitsu is… ummm… a  bit different to many other arts.

Just for starters, every senior instructor I’ve ever practiced under has been more than willing to borrow, adapt, or steal new technique from any source that takes their fancy. The only provisos are that the techniques should work, and that they should reflect the functional principles of ju-jitsu. (There’s a long list of those. I’m not going into it here.) It has also been made very clear to me that the ‘ju’ part of ju-jitsu isn’t really about ‘gentleness’, but more to do with flexibility and adaptability. Putting it into perspective: why should the ju-jitsu of a small, slender woman be the same as that of a large, heavily built man? What good would that do?

Ju-jitsu needs to operate as an extension of the practitioner’s own physicality. High spinning kicks may suit a fit man with long legs… but at my age, they don’t suit me. A man with a low centre of gravity and a bit of extra weight may actually find those things advantageous in fighting on the ground, whereas they may not be so useful if he’s standing and punching.  Ultimately, every practitioner’s ju-jitsu must be very much their own.

That means there’s no strictly set body of technique. The AJJA is the framework body of which my school is a part here in Australia. As I understand it, they reserve the right to approve the curriculum of each school which affiliates with them under the AJJA banner. The curriculum of a school must include elements from all the areas associated with traditional ju-jitsu, and there must be a sufficiency of each… but individual schools have considerable leeway.

For my part, I use the curriculum as a grading tool. People want to grade. They want to know they’re improving. That’s fine. The curriculum provides a list of skills and techniques they need to display. The art itself, however, is much more.

This brings me to my own teaching approach. Last night, halfway through a session dealing with variations on a right-hand hook punch attack, I noticed that Matthew and his partner had moved from the exercise the rest of the class was tackling and had worked up a fairly nifty version of tai-otoshi as a response.  There was a really cool elbow-strike entry to the throw, and instead of relying on the collar of the gi jacket, they were using direct grips to the opponent’s shoulder and forearm, which gave the throw some hefty leverage and allowed for a straight arm-bar finish as well. I watched them a couple times, realized it was a really cool variation on the throw… and asked them to demonstrate it for the class.

Then I went off and practiced it with my assistant instructor.  Afterwards, we talked about tactical elements of the technique — when and how and what kind of opponent — and then we moved on.

It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized just how far I’d  moved away from the traditional approach of a martial arts instructor. I wondered whether that ought to worry me, but in the end, I figured otherwise. Really, all I’d done was to follow a simple constructivist approach to teaching — a thing I learned many years ago from a remarkable person who got me involved in an online project to teach creative writing.

I’d never really thought about how it applied to teaching a martial art — but it’s definitely there, especially with an art as eclectic and ultimately personal as ju-jitsu. I regard mental flexibility and a willingness to learn from others as vital skills. It only makes sense that I should be modelling them on the dojo floor. After all: that’s what I think of as good ju-jitsu, and that’s what I’m supposed to be teaching.

Now I’m really looking forward to next week!

One comment

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