The Jujutsu Murders, Plus Some Brain Science


Imagine you’re a detective in Edo Period Japan (1603-1868), and you’re told to investigate a case in which three highly-trained practitioners of one of the most well-respected jujutsu schools have been stabbed to death. Each of the three bodies has only one mark on it–the lethal stab wound. The wound is on the right side of the abdomen in all three cases. There are no signs of a prolonged struggle, despite the fact that each of the three had many years of training and none of the men was an easy victim. The stabbings happened independently, and there were no witnesses to any of the killings. So, who or what killed these three experts in jujutsu?


Nobody knows who killed them, but a rigid approach to training contributed to what killed them. As you may have guessed, the killer took advantage of knowledge of the school’s techniques, i.e. their “go-to” defense / counter-attack for a given attack. It’s believed that the attacker held his scabbard overhead in his right hand, and his weapon point forward in a subdued manner in his left. All three of the defenders must have instinctively responded to the feigned downward attack as the killer stabbed upward from below with the unseen blade.


It’s a true story. I read this account first in Jeffrey Mann’s When Buddhists Attack. That book offers insight into the question of what drew some of the world’s deadliest warriors (specifically, Japan’s samurai) to one of the world’s most pacifistic religions (i.e. Buddhism–specifically Zen Buddhism.)  Mann cites Trevor Leggett’s Zen and the Ways as the source of the story, and Leggett’s account is slightly more detailed.


This story intrigues because it turns the usual cautionary tale on its head. Normally, the moral of the story would be: “drill, drill, drill…”


Allow me to drop some brain science. First, there’s no time for the conscious mind to react to a surprise attack. The conscious mind may later believe it was instrumental, but that’s because it put together what happened after the fact and was ignorant of the subconscious actors involved. (If you’re interested in the science of the conscious mind’s stealing credit ex post facto [like a thieving co-worker], I refer you to David Eagleman’s Incognito.)  Second, our evolutionary hardwired response to surprise is extremely swift, but lacks the sophistication to deal with something as challenging as a premeditated attack by a scheming human. Our “fight or flight” mechanism (more properly, the “freeze, flight, fight, or fright” mechanism) can be outsmarted because it was designed to help us survive encounters with predatory animals who were themselves operating at an instinctual level. (If you’re interested in the science of how our fearful reactions sometimes lead us astray when we have to deal with more complex modern-day threats, I refer you to Jeff Wise’s Extreme Fear. Incidentally, if you’re like, “Dude, I don’t have time to read all these books about science and the martial arts, I just need one book on science as it pertains to martial arts,” I just so happen to be writing said book… but you’ll have to wait for it.)


So where do the two points of the preceding paragraph leave one?  They leave one with the traditional advice to train responses to a range of attacks into one’s body through intense repetition. Drill defenses and attacks over and over again until the action is habitual. This is what most martial artists spend most of their training effort doing. A martial art gives one a set of pre-established attacks or defenses, and it facilitates drilling them into one’s nervous system.


Of course, the astute reader will point out that the three jujutsu practitioners who were killed had done just what was suggested in the preceding paragraph, and not only didn’t it help them but–arguably–it got them killed. I should first point out that the story of the three murder victims shouldn’t be taken as a warning against drilling the fundamentals. As far as their training went, it served them well.  However, there’s a benefit to going beyond the kata approach to martial arts. One would like to be able to achieve a state of mind that once would have been called Zen mind, but–in keeping with our theme of modern science–we’ll call transient hypo-frontality, or just “the flow.” This state of mind is associated with heightened creativity at the speed of instinct. (If you’re interested in the science of how extreme athletes have used the flow to make great breakthroughs in their sports, I’d highly recommend Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman.) Practicing kata won’t help you in this domain, but I believe randori (free-form or sparring practice) can–if the approach is right.

The Science of Inversions: or, Why and How to Get Off the Wall

IMG_0835Inversions are a class of postures (asana) in which part or all of the body / limbs are raised above the head. The classic inversions are: headstand [shirshasana], shoulder-stand [sarvangasana], plow pose [halasana], forearm-stand [pinchamayurasana], and handstand [adho mukha vrksasana], but there are many more–some of which are easier and others of which are more challenging than these basics. Other than a few partial inversions (e.g. down-dog [adho mukha svanasana] and leg-up-the-wall pose), inversions tend to be daunting for beginners (and even intermediate students) at a mental as well as a physical level.

In this post I’ll focus on headstands. Most students seem to achieve shoulder-stands and plow pose relatively easily because it feels more stable. I’ll note that those two asana require as much or more care and caution as any inversion given the flexed state of the neck. On the other hand, by the time one is perfecting one’s handstand, one will likely be over the issues that I’m addressing in this post. I’ll save those poses for a later post with a different thrust.

Let’s first consider the effect inversions are supposed to have (and then the effect they tend to have in reality.)

What inversions are supposed to do:  The story is supposed to go like this: 1.) The body inverts. 2.) Our body’s sensors recognize that the blood flow to the brain is far beyond its needs.  3.) The body quiets our vital signs.

What inversions (too often) actually do: It may surprise some readers that inversions are supposed to have a calming effect because the chain of events is often as follows: 1.) The body inverts. 2.) The amygdala fires, triggering the physiological responses associated with fear. 3.) One’s conscious mind imagines the pain and suffering of falling. 4.) The amygdala fires some more. One is in “fight or flight” mode, and the flight the body wants to make is to a right-side-up position.

While I’ve had to work hard to improve my inversions, I had a much easier time with this issue than many. Before you dismiss me as a narcissist, let me state unequivocally that I have no special gift for inversions . I’m not claiming to be a yoga prodigy by any stretch. Why was it easier for me? I’ve practiced a martial art for many years that required training in breakfalls (ukemi.) Therefore, I had no particular fear of falling over onto my back, because my body is trained to tuck and roll. [My only fear when I first started doing headstands in studio sessions was that someone, e.g. the teacher, would walk into my blind spot. Note to all: don’t walk behind someone’s back when they’re inverted unless you’re sure you’re out of the “timber” zone.]

Why are breakfalls so beneficial to the development of one’s inversions?  Because it allows one to get off the wall. A lot of practitioners get addicted to the wall. “Addicted” may sound like a harsh term, but like addicts they think they can quit anytime and that they will quit at some undesignated point in the future–sometimes they do, but often they don’t. Reliance on the wall is reinforced by the fact that one may find one can only spend a couple anxiety-filled seconds inverted without the wall, but one can spend minutes comfortably against the wall. There’s a reason for this great disparity, and understanding this reason is crucial for knowing why doing 2 or 3 seconds unsupported (at first) is better for one’s long-term development than staying for three minutes leaning on the wall.

Here’s the deal. When you invert, your body needs to make subtle corrections to keep you on balance–at least until you reach the level of yoga genius. If you stand up with your feet together, your eyes closed, and you pay attention to your feet and legs, you’ll see that this is true when you’re upright as well. It’s just that your body is used to being upright. It knows how to make all these micro-corrections without conscious thought. The good news is that one’s nervous system rapidly learns to do the same thing when one is upside-down. When I say “rapidly” I’m not talking about the first, second, or even the twelfth time you try to do an inversion. [Trust me, despite what your mother may have told you about her darling genius, you didn’t achieve stability upright on your first few tries either.] The first several times, you’ll fall down almost immediately. However, if you keep trying, your body will learn and you’ll achieve progressively longer inverted stays. You can’t make these corrections at the speed of conscious thought. But the beauty part is that your body will learn to achieve stability solely through practice without any intellectual activity whatsoever.

Why doesn’t your body learn this when you use the wall? The cornerstone biological principle for those interested in fitness, movement, and sports is: Your brain and body are lazy; they will not develop any capability that you don’t force them to by challenging activity. Your muscles don’t get bigger without overloading them and causing little micro-tears in them that they must heal up better than before. Your bones don’t get more dense unless you put more load on them (see: Wolff’s Law.) And your nervous system will not wire itself to keep you upright in an inversion if you’re propped up against a wall. You can invert against a wall for a thousand years and not get the same benefits as from an hour of struggling to get off the wall. This principle is reflected in nature from Darwinian evolution onward.  Gazelles don’t learn to run 500 miles an hour. Once it can accelerate (on average) fast enough to survive the cheetahs that prey on it, it passes on genetic material and the evolutionary pressure is off. Gazelles don’t keep getting increasingly faster than their predators for shits and giggles.

Incidentally, this is also why you should keep challenging yourself, and not rest with getting the basic form. There’s always somewhere new to take it. For example, one can look at moving between splits like so:



Alternatively, one can work on a different form of the pose, such as the tripod headstand. Transitioning from crow pose [kakasana] to tripod headstand is a good way to start to learn the bodily control that will serve one well in intermediate and advanced practice.



Yet another option is to practice a controlled descent. The inverted “L” is quite a challenge. Not as one might think because it requires tremendous core strength, but because it requires gradually leaning into the direction of falling backwards in order to counterbalance the weight of your legs.



A few notes on headstand breakfalls:

– Make sure you have room in all directions to fall without crashing into anything or anyone. While it would be nice to always fall back onto one’s feet, it’s neither realistic nor beneficial to your development. Why not? If you’re always distributing your weight to fall onto your feet, you will be keeping muscles tense and will have trouble finding a relaxed state of balance. Furthermore, there is a tendency toward panicked motion if one starts to lose balance in the wrong direction, and speed is your enemy in inversions.  (One wants to do everything from entering the inversion to falling in as slow and controlled a manner as one can possibly manage.) If you get your feet up high enough to be on balance, you need to accept the fact that you’re as likely to roll onto your back as on to your feet.

– If one is doing the basic forearm-supported headstand, don’t tightly interlock one’s fingers. “Tightly” is the key word here. It’s alright to interlock your fingers, but one doesn’t want to create ridged hands such that one’s neck rolls over a 3 to 4 inch (7 to 10 cm) ledge if one falls backwards.  One wants the hands to collapse.

– Tuck and roll. Don’t reach back with your foot / feet and try to arrest your fall. If you have enough strength, flexibility, and timing to make that work you probably don’t need my advice and haven’t read this far. (i.e. you have advanced gymnastic skill.) If you’re the more typical yoga practitioner, you’re more likely to injure your back, toes, feet, or some combination thereof by arching into a back-bend to arrest your fall.

– Counter-intuitively, you probably don’t want to put anything behind you to soften your fall. You don’t want your spine rolling over surfaces that are at different levels–even if one them is relatively soft. It’s usually best to roll over a level surface, even if that surface may be a bit hard. Furthermore, if you think you’re going to save yourself by working entirely on a softer surface, you’ll probably find yourself falling more often and for a longer period. Softer surfaces are harder to maintain balance on. That’s why one of the primary ways that we make an exercise more challenging is to do it on a softer (more rolly) surface.

– Don’t let your neck crumple. On a related aside, never look around while you’re in a headstand. If you need to see something, e.g. the teacher’s demonstration, come out of the headstand.

– However you come out of an inversion, don’t neglect the counter-pose. For the headstand, child’s pose is a common counter posture, and you should spend some time there upon exiting the pose.

– It’s best to begin one’s practice of inversions under the supervision of a qualified teacher. As one develops confidence and one’s body begins to learn how to maintain stability, one can make these postures an increasing part of one’s practice.

It’s hard to get get a good sequence of pics to show how to breakfall–given my limited photography skills, that is. But here’s my attempt.

So it begins with crumpling balance

So it begins with crumpling balance

Get those fingers open so your neck doesn't flow over an interlocked fist

Get those fingers open so your neck doesn’t flow over an interlocked fist

Tuck and roll

Tuck and roll

Don't arrest your roll.  Let momentum carry you forward. Gradually dissipate the energy.

Don’t arrest your roll. Let momentum carry you forward. Gradually dissipate the energy.

Happy inverting.

BOOK REVIEW: The Pyjama Game by Mark Law

The Pyjama Game: A Journey Into JudoThe Pyjama Game: A Journey Into Judo by Mark Law

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Mark Law’s book contains two types of book in one volume, unified by the theme of judō. On the one hand, it’s a microhistory of the martial art and sport of judō–and, no, it’s not redundant to say the martial art and the sport because while these aspects overlap they aren’t identical. On the other hand, the book presents a personal account of Law’s experience as a judōka who began his practice at the ripe age of 50. The two elements of the book are interwoven together, and aren’t forced into distinct sections by the book’s organization. The history is obviously organized in a chronological fashion, but personal accounts are peppered throughout, and sometimes stories appear in history chapters.

As a history of judō, Law begins with the pre-history of the art in its ancestor martial art of jujutsu, he travels through the arts influence on off-shoots like Sambo and Brazilian Jujutsu, and he examines how the art has contributed to mixed martial arts—the 800 pound gorilla of present-day combative competitions. Particular emphasis is given to Kanō Jigorō’s role as founder of the art and the evolution of judō as an Olympic sport. Interestingly, besides founding Kodokan Judō, Kanō’s other claim to fame was in being the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). However, he never saw judō become an Olympic event, and—ironically–at least a few among those close to him doubted that Kanō would’ve been pleased with his art’s inclusion in the international games.

While Japan dominated judō when the sport first entered the domain of international competition, it wasn’t long before there were a number of other countries including the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Cuba, and Korea that were producing first-rate judōka. Law devotes considerable discussion to the global blossoming of this sport, including entire chapters on some of the more prominent nations. The book discusses the double-edged sword that Japan faced. On one hand, the Japanese were heart-broken when other nations started beat them at their own game. On the other hand, it was clear that this had to happen for the sport to retain a global following. (Otherwise, the sport might have gone the way of baseball—being pulled out of the Olympics because only a handful of North American, Caribbean, and East Asian nations had any interest in it.

There are also chapters on women’s judō, a development that no doubt faced a good deal more misogyny than many sport’s bi-genderifications. There’s always been resistance to encouraging women’s participation in combative activities—even judō, a martial art whose dangerous edges were supposed to have been rounded off through rules, equipment (e.g. sprung flooring), weight classes, and close monitoring. Law discusses the hard fought evolution of the women’s side of the sport.

As a personal narrative, Law talks about the lessons he learned from training in judō and from testing for rank—an arduous process that requires beating other rank-pursuers in randori (free-form grappling, i.e. the grappling version of sparring.) Many of these lessons will be familiar to anyone who has practiced a martial art (e.g. while it’s more intimidating to fight someone who’s much more experienced in the art, it’s usually vastly more safe—both because senior players are more in control of their bodies and because they have less need to prove anything—i.e. they won’t injure an opponent to protect a fragile ego), but much of this discussion is specific to the culture and practice of judō.

If you’re interested in the history and development of judō, I’d recommend this book. I found the book to be at its most interesting when it addresses the history and globalization of the sport. However, those who haven’t practiced martial arts may find Law’s personal insight to be useful—particularly if you’re considering taking up judō and all the more if you intend to take it up past mid-life.

It should be noted that—judging by the identical table of contents and subtitle—this book was also released under the title Falling Hard: A Journey into Judo. The book does is annotated and provides references. Law is a journalist, and the niceties of that discipline are followed throughout.

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BOOK REVIEW: Higher Judo by Moshe Feldenkrais

Higher Judo: GroundworkHigher Judo: Groundwork by Moshe Feldenkrais

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re at all familiar with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, most likely it’s for the system of bodily awareness and efficient movement that bears his name (i.e. the Feldenkrais Method.) You may be completely unaware that Feldenkrais was a first-rate judōka who trained under judō’s founder Jigoro Kano, and that his experience with judō played a major role in his understanding of the principles of natural and efficient movement. (It should be noted that Feldenkrais was neither a medical doctor nor a doctor in a medical / biological field, but was a physicist by training.)

Higher Judō was originally published in 1952, and was out of print for many years until a new addition was brought out in 2010 (with three new forwards and some additional back matter.) It’s not hard to imagine why the book made a comeback after such a hiatus–and 26 years after the death of Dr. Feldenkrais. The book explains the ground fighting techniques of judō, which are the basis of Brazilian Jujutsu (BJJ), and BJJ is a dominant form of ground and submission work within Mixed Martial Arts (MMA.) Given the immense popularity of MMA, and the desire of fighters to hone their technique to the utmost, it’s a good time to bring this half-century old book back to the fore.

The book consists of twelve chapters. The first half of these chapters deals with preliminaries such as principles of movement, philosophy, and basic movement exercises. The second half gets into the tactics of ground work. The arrangement for the latter chapters is largely by position of the competitors relative to each other (e.g. the mount, 12 o’clock, side control, in the guard, etc.)

The first half has few graphics, but the last half is packed with line drawings that are based on photographs (ostensibly it was cheaper or easier to reproduced the line drawings back in the day.) The line drawings offer sufficient detail so that one can see what is being done (to the degree one would be able to see it in a photo or even in person—i.e. some of the techniques are subtle and the written description becomes essential.)

The book is a good overview of the basics of ground work with a few unusual and rare techniques thrown in. Feldenkrais points out that some techniques are more important than others, and that one should drill a few of the most critical ones rather than focusing a lot of time on the more eccentric techniques. As I’ve written many times before, I don’t believe that one can learn a martial art from a book. However, if you’ve been taught these types of techniques, you’re sure to find this book an interesting reference with some ideas for approaching ground work training.

Some of the characteristics of the book could be taken as positive or negative, and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide. First, Feldenkrais avoids using names for techniques. He uses neither the common Japanese names for the techniques (e.g. there’s no reference to juji gatame, tomoe nage, or hadaka jime) nor the common English names. He goes by figure number attached to the aforementioned line drawings. Second, he has thoroughly cross-referenced the book such that you might be on the page containing figures 228 and 229, and he’ll make reference to figure 52. So the book involves a lot of turning back (I wrote in the page numbers where off-page figures were referenced so I wouldn’t have to find what page the figure was on each time.) Third, Feldenkrais is a scholar by training and is not averse getting a bit wordy and verging on abstruse. Of course, the flip-side of this is that he provides a great deal of precision in his language. That being said, I found this book readable and much less ponderous than one of his Feldenkrais Method books that I read.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interesting in gaining a better understanding of ground fighting. In the early sections of the book he provides excellent food for thought about the judō approach to movement, and in the latter half he catalogs the basics in a thorough and logical fashion.

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