Why do we practice our Ninjutsu outside? a rant

April 7, 2013
Yossi Sheriff

I just read a question on Quora that asked about the problems with the roundhouse kick. There were some good answers.

What amazed me is that the accurate analysis provided by my peers lacked a fundamental aspect.

First, to the point – For my students and me, the most fundamental flaw of the roundhouse kick, is that it compromises the fighter’s balance, especially over imperfect terrain. That doesn’t mean we don’t use it, we do use a modified roundhouse in Ninjutsu, it means we refrain from using a Mawashi kick on precarious surfaces.

But there’s more, why? because my peers’ answers reveal a deeper flaw.

Now, I guess that most of the people reading this online, live in cities and put their feet on pavement or floor more than they step on turf, gravel or rock. but I am really sorry to see such a big part our heritage evaporate.

What disappeared from our culture and most martial arts, and what I am desperately trying to save in my dojo, is the connection to nature. By nature I do not mean downloading a nice desktop view of the Alps or even an actual wonderful breath of fresh air in the park.

Nature begins with being outside, walking outside.
AKBAN desert gathering 2012

I want to be clear on this – all the New Age jargon about connecting to nature makes me sick. It makes me sick because one can imagine anything and this imagination can then be an excuse to abstain from activity. So if one imagines she is “one with nature” because she just bought an organic iPad bamboo cover, she’ll be less inclined to actually poop outside and cover it.

But what does pooping outside have to do with martial arts? you might ask. Everything. It’s the small details that betray an instability. Instability of the roundhouse kick on gravel, instability and unsustainability of our technological culture, instability of what many martial arts have become – a gym activity, boxed existence.

Not so long ago everyone walked, walked to bring water, walked to see friends, walked outside. In ancient Japanese budo, pupils used to walk for days just to reach a teacher. And I am not even starting on the necessity of moving on foot, to this day, for soldiers. Walking outside is a part of the human heritage that is becoming a novelty. Just as we preserve ancient martial traditions we should preserve this outside backdrop. The outside was once ingrained in our lives and so taken for granted, now we need to make the effort.

And it’s not just the therapy of walking, let’s go back to the details. Not so long ago everyone used to crouch down when going to the toilet, Moses, King David, Mark Twain, everyone. Now we sit on a toilet seat, so our bodies forgot to squat. I see students coming to my dojo who can not squat, that is bad not only for their health ( 1, 2, 3 ) that makes proper stance in Ninjutsu impossible.

And there’s more harm done, not only on a physical abilities level but on an ethical level.
Only kings were carried on a palanquin and defecated on seats. Now we are all kings or, more accurately, about 40% are kings and everybody else, from the child laborer to the domestic help are paying the real price. Everything serves us because we force it too. We force the environment, even though because of global warming, temporarily, we force the temperature of the air, we force people, far away, to do our bid. And, like the steak eater who never butchered a cow, we think there is no force involved because we never actually sliced a cow’s neck.

So on many levels, just being outside, moving outside, without vehicles should be top priority because of mental health, physical health, martial abilities and ethics of mutual interdependence.

Grappling outdoors

Martial arts appeal to something real, the feeling of being protected by one’s own ability, but the backdrop that was in the past to our craft, the outside, is gone now. That backdrop of being outdoors, living and practicing in a non airconditioned environment, on gravel, on rocks, that is disappearing now – it’s a novelty.

Though more people now live in cities (4) than rural areas, most of our planet is not covered in concrete. We should make every effort to spend time outside, to practice outside, to take only what we need.
This is ingrained in my craft but should be so in many other crafts.

When more is done outside, less is wasted, more insights gained and simple things like the proper kick at the proper settings are obvious.

Rainbow at the AKBAN desert gathering

The unnecessary

January 26, 2012
Yossi Sheriff

Yossi Sheriff
Translated by Oded Levi – AKBAN Canada

A student asked me: “Can I do the warm-up with a T-shirt and only then put a Gi on? It’s too hot inside this heavy uniform”. “That’s only logical” I thought, “only logical”.

We wear a Hakama, a little black skirt, and also a heavy Gi, we put our big backpacks and walk the desert for the desert gathering, we do not use GPS. It’s just a taste of the many unexplainable things we do. There is more to these then tradition or toughness.

I acknowledge the fact, many of these habits are unnecessary and can be made easier, but there is a place for it, it has to do with the concept of respect. Work, respect, must always border the unnecessary.

When I recounted the dialog above in the Dojo, one veteran told me: “In the Suez canal, in the Yom Kippur war, we knew it’s the end – either we’ll die or we’ll get captured by the Egyptian army. We felt like it’s the end of the world. We didn’t know if we’ll live to see tomorrow”.

I looked at him; I didn’t know what to say in front of the veterans. I’m kind of an ancient guy, but in the Yom Kippur war I was a kid in elementary school.

“And then what did you do?” I finally inquired.

“We cleaned our weapons, we checked the platoon’s machine guns, and then we tidied our uniforms and meticulously shined our shoes”. I took a good look at him – he never misses a class and in the Yom Kippur war he polished his shoes.

In our culture the question asked is: “What’s in it for me?” that’s a different way of saying: “why should I do it?”.

In any old school, the question is completely different. Rather then ask about the the functions of the anatomy we sing to the heart. When one answers a question about roses with a mathematical equation one is stuck, there is no perfume in the answer.

If a practice, a Budo, is completely logical and necessary it’s good but not powerful. To be powerful is another realm, to be powerful it has to earn the statue of a rose. It must not be fully explainable. Treating our elders well, not stealing even when no one’s looking, putting on a Hakama and a Gi especially on a hot day and, please do not forget – practicing a traditional Martial art in the modern battle field of the middle east.

Budo, with it’s health benefits, with the level of security it allows its practitioners, gets its power from somewhere else. Practicing for many years is the essence of the unnecessary, and so is the seed of personal freedom, the freedom to work hard. Zorba the greek summed it up: “This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition.”

AKBAN rose


January 12, 2012
Yossi Sheriff

Yossi Sheriff
Translated by Oded Levi – AKBAN Canada

“Why didn’t you put the nutrition program on the website along with the fitness program?” a student once asked me.

In 1985 I lived in retirement home for the elderly, for a few weeks. I slept in my dear grandmother’s room to look after her. Back then I don’t think there were foreign nurses for that. So I had to do it. The old people had three meals a day and I had to mentally brace myself for these meals. Every meal was a tough event, a herd of old people storming – I am not sure it’s a strong enough word to describe it – the food.
The tenants were focused on the goal – to eat well, lots of it, and fast. There was this one old woman who helped those who needed help sitting down, washed hands and served food for others in her table. “That’s the Rebbetzin, the woman-Rabbi”, they told me when I asked.

I know a guy, Danny, who only drinks water and a specific kind of water- spring water he drew himself and stored in glass bottles. It’s the same thing I’ve seen with the Rebbetzin at that retirement home in Katamon, Jerusalem. something that in our culture is usually directed toward another person – happens with them towards something else, to an action. I will give a name for this treatment, I call it: “Respect”. Respect like this is the un-necessary, the un-reasonable, the un-expected respect and thus – a rare commodity.

Usually respect is directed to another human being as an expression of hierarchy and that person’s social status. But there is another form of respect. In the old school regime, respect is expressed also to a technique, an object, to a way of life. Through the observation and the action one can practice respect to movement, to someone, to something.

Respect, “re-spicere“ in Latin, means “to look, to observe again”.
What are we looking at again and with what intent? What is this useless action we voluntarily take? How do we look and from what reasons? It’s very important, it’s the fundamental root of our art.

The actions can many, but not the intention. One can take the sword and perform the bowing ceremony. But early in the morning, if I myself draw it, I just hold the sword in the scabbard with both hands, I balance it and look at it, I don’t bow to the sword, I just look at it, I carried it in my backpack for many desert gatherings and I don’t bow to it now, but I remember the intention of bowing. After many years it’s not just a sword for me, the repetitive, useless observation made it into something else. And it’s not just the sword, it’s the kick in the morning, the tsuki in front of the opponent.

What are these? To what dimension does everyday act transcend if it’s respected?

“You need to work for respect” they say in Hebrew. It doesn’t just show up, it’s an effort. And this effort outlines the road between respect and weakness. To ogle pretty ladies might be re-spicere, but it is no respect. It’s not an effort.

The Rebbetzin just wants to devour the food too, but she has years of work expressed in every single action, in an elderly home of all places.
Respect does not have to be based in morals or ethics, it is based on power, the only power we can independently develop. Gideon in the bible knew enough to use it to separate the people from the warriors. Giving your seat to an old man is useless, un-necessary work and thus Powerful.

To respect the food we eat, to respect the technique or the stranger is not an easy work and not an easy choice. We don’t look for easy choices, in Akban there are no shortcuts, it’s not a catch phrase, it’s the ability to work.

Yesterday some young guy came to practice, he broke his hands three weeks ago and they took his cast off. So he came with the bandages and just did kicks and sit-ups. That’s what he did to himself and to his own core, thorough this he can breath a master’s air, through this he’s more than just a guy.

And for us, martial arts practitioners, there is an added barrier; we are supposed to manufacture respect in the midst of strife.

A year ago ten people attacked an Akban veteran from Jerusalem. They came with sticks, brass knuckles and knives. He lived to tell the tale: Just when they showed up he took the Kukishin standard battle stance- Doko Ichimonji.
In his greatest stress somthing in him remembered his genetic code. This is how he started, this is how we start being marvelous – from something we do anyway- there is no shame in our everyday practice, with us it’s Ninjutsu, for someone else it’s Karate, Tai chi, Vegetarianism, Judaism or Islam. They are all good. Respect and shame do not live together, shame and inner weakness do. The useless action, the additional look, the attentiveness – they go against the bon-ton, respect is not fashionable, it is my grandmother.

The same respect monitors the heart beats of the martial artist, the carpenter and the poet. And for this ancient monitor we set the clock a few hundred years back, with the right awareness, with useless repetition. In the Dojo it’s the Kata, in the music class it’s the ancient instrument, an old music score. In another place it’s a quill and a parchment. And when the practice walks the same path for hundreds of years, it’s a potent journey.

Our path is a deep desert gorge. There the rocks lie and wait for the careful step to move them. You put your feet in the the old Ninjutsu kamae and it happens – There are ancient footsteps on this road, quiet ones.

No need to look for it in monasteries, quite the opposite – here’s the nose and it’s right under it.

And if it’s a meal than it’s the respect for the food, it’s not a given – something died for it, someone worked hard for it, it’s the food and it can get better. If someone shares this attitude then it becomes better, hench our community.

So this is what I know, this is how the nutrition program starts, this is how the martial art I learned from my teacher goes. It’s no wonder I didn’t dare yet to publish it like the fitness program – a nutrition program that is based on respect for food can only be understood by someone who was hungry and chooses to be hungry again.

This is the obvious and also the hidden side of ‘practicing respect’ in my Dojo. Only a person who was hungry will practice correct eating without acting as if he’s practicing correct eating. Only a person, who witnessed the un-separateness of violence from life, can practice non-violence.

Respecting food starts with sometimes being hungry, when have you been hungry lately? Respect for our Budo is not punching The Buddha.

Kefitzat Haderech

January 6, 2012
Yossi Sheriff

Yossi Sheriff
Translated by Oded Levi

One practitioner, the head-teacher of a Zen temple, was trying to make a sign for the temple’s gate.

Calligraphy is Dō. More accurately it’s a Dō called Shodō. I think it’s interesting that calligraphy is Dō not only in Japan but in many places, From the Benedictine monks in the middle-ages, through the beautiful Arab calligraphy and to the ancient Jewish profession of hand writing the whole Bible – Sofer Stam. Maybe that is how Dō develops, out of the need to write down a grocery list, out of the duty to write in your tax form, out of the wish to preserve the scriptures.

I firmly believe that these are the precursors for Dō: when the necessary allows itself to become a matter of choice, and the will attends a repetition of that choice, morning after morning, day after day, decade after decade, Then the alchemy happens. The respect, the awareness and the repetition transform the mundane deed into gold.

These ingredients are known to every calligrapher, every Zen monk, every pianist and every Sofer Stam: repeat, attend, respect. But there is something else, I have to use a Hebrew word for this because I know of no other equivalent, I’ll use the term “Kefitzat Haderech”.

I’ve read this story somewhere – Kossan dipped a huge brush into the ink.
The temple’s head student was there to assist and hand the big sheets of paper that were on the meditation room’s floor.

Kossan wrote down the words: “The first principle”.

The student watched and said: “Not bad, but it can be a bit better”, and handed a new sheet of paper.

Kossan concentrated, and wrote down the words: “The first principle”.

The student watched and said: “this was not as good. I think the lines are a bit forced. The first one was better”.
Kossan helped move away the paper and prepared the brush for another attempt.

Kossan, again, wrote down the words: “The first principle”.

“Terrible” said the student, who probably had some Israeli hutzpa genes.

Kossan wrote forty-eight first principles.

Then the student had enough of his teacher’s failures. “Excuse me, teacher”, he must have said, “I need to take a pee”, and left.

The teacher took this opportunity and with a worry-free mind he quickly wrote: “The first principle”.

“Wonderful!” exclaimed the student upon his return. “Masterpiece”.

And it’s there, to this day to remind me: “There are no shortcuts”, but there is a Kefitzat Haderech.

To the Kefitzat Haderech!

Video, police, security and methodical pyramid

July 9, 2010
Yossi Sheriff

A Former Police Officer from Oakland Police was found guilty of manslaughter of a suspect – Oscar Grant Jr. – who was handcuffed during the act. The court ruled the sentence. Since the officer is white and the suspect a black youngster there are concerns of racial riots in the Bay Area. This case reminds the Rodney King case that broke the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The Grant and King events were filmed by viewers.
A paper from 2007, in the Journal of AKBAN, warned that the certainty of documenting personal acts must be part of the strategy of fighting, self-defense and security. ERA, Exposed recorded action, is here to stay and planning according to this certainty is as important as preparing for the enemy’s specific weapons. The Gaza flotilla case is another fatal incidence in which not only the intelligence was lacking but the utter certainty of video documentation was not considered. Combat personnel and security forces must do the new data integration: ERA of what we do is a certainty, not an option.
AKBAN, The Academy of martial arts, leads the integration of ERA into personal and group techniques. One of the main conclusions we’ve had is that learning and practicing with non-violent and low aggression techniques improves overall target acquisition.
In the video the officer shoots detainee’s head. This is one of many videos taken by spectators in the event. The picture attached was taken by the deceased, using his cell phone, seconds before he was shot.