JUDO: An Approach to Life

Judo has a lot to offer. Originally, most are attracted to Judo to learn self-defense. Yes, it’s awesome to throw an assailant to the ground, or to force an opponent to submit. Many Judoka (one who practices judo) imagine themselves as expert fighters or even Olympic champions. For beginners, studying Judo means learning techniques, practicing them, and gaining proficiency. But as the Judoka matures, an understanding of what judo training was originally meant to be can begin to emerge. When contextualized properly, judo becomes a means of self-transformation. Much more than a fighting style, judo is a physical application of principles designed to teach students how to live. Judo is an approach to life.

Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, set out to discover an underlying principle in jujitsu, the martial art of his youth. Kano, with the inquisitive mind of the university professor he was, discovered jujitsu’s all-pervasive principle: maximum results with minimum effort. Or, put another way, efficiency. Discarding jujitsu techniques that did not adhere to his rule and keeping those that did, Kano developed judo, the “gentle art of giving way.” He believed that the kind of understanding that makes a good Judoka could also be employed in life outside of the dojo. In his book Kodokan Judo, Kano says judo is a mental and physical discipline with lessons applicable to the management of daily affairs. The fundamental principles of judo, the master says, applied to everyday activities “leads to the highest and most rational life.” Students who understand and apply judo concepts to training, become better Judoka; and those who apply the same principles to life, become better people. Still, many successful judo players, for various reasons, never grasp what Professor Kano was attempting to teach.

Ju is the Japanese word for gentle. Yet, on the surface, judo seems anything but gentle. Those who practice judo know the hard work and determination it takes to become proficient in the art. Training that includes being thrown to the mat countless times and the exhausting struggle of Katame-waza (grappling techniques) makes judo one of the most physically demanding martial art styles. But beneath the roughness and dynamism, key principles are at work.

The principle of yielding

The Judo principle of “yielding” can teach someone how to throw or trip an opponent; but it can also teach that same person how to conduct themselves in the classroom or the boardroom. One of first lessons in judo is “when pushed, pull-an easy concept with profound implications. Yielding, or giving way, with precise timing and execution makes it fairly easy for a small person to throw a large one. Consider this: your opponent steps in to initiate an inner leg trip (Ouchi-gari); with a slight pull and swing of your foot, (tsurikomi-ashi) you put the attacker on the ground. What happened? You applied the principle of yielding, and now have the advantage.

Another scenario: Your boss chides you for a mistake you know is his fault. He is not doing his job well and needs a scapegoat. You know it was not your mistake. Why should you take the blame? Shouldn’t you march into his office and lay it on the line about his incompetence and buck-passing? Not according to Kano’s principle of yielding. As judo practitioners, we do not react to force with force. Judo teaches us to respond, not react. Yield to your superior’s unprofessional aggression and wait. The boss can’t hide his ineptness forever, and in six months time, he’s dismissed. Everybody knew all along the boss was on his way out, and now you, because you have displayed sound judgment, are just what the company is looking for. You’re given a promotion, becoming the new boss. Well, it may not always happen that way, but the point is by not meeting force with force, you have successfully applied the principle of non-resistance, or yielding, to professional life.

Many teachers use the story of the willow and the oak tree to illustrate the above point. A willow tree and an oak, the story goes, lived side by side. One day a hurricane was approaching and the oak said to the willow “I’m the strongest around; no storm can knock me down.” The mighty oak stands tall and strong and asks the willow what it will do. The willow replies, “I will relax and bend until the storm passes.” The hurricane comes and destroys everything in its path. And when it’s over, which tree is left standing? Of course, the willow. Why? Yielding. Do not react, respond.

The principle of kime

The principle of kime, or tight mindedness, is known less in the west than in Asia. But it is an integral component of all traditional martial arts. Judo is no exception. Best translated from Japanese as ‘tight mind,’ kime, is closely related to how westerners think of intense concentration or ‘the zone.’

In the flowing, continuous struggle that is randori (free sparring), one must keep all of their attention on the contest. The immediate goal is the only thought, all extraneous thoughts are discarded. If not, it is unlikely you will have a successful training session; in fact, it’s more likely you’ll accomplish less and use more energy. In his book Zen in the Martial Arts, Joe Hyams recounts lessons learned as Bruce Lee’s student. “A good martial artist puts his mind on one thing at a time,” says Lee. “He takes each thing as it comes, finishes with it, and passes on to the next. Like a Zen master, he is not concerned with the past or the future, only with what he is doing at that moment…Always remember: in life as well as on the mat an unfocused or ‘loose’ mind wastes energy.”

A judo education helps to develop kime simply because if attention is lost you will probably get thrown. When attention is pinpointed onto one activity, such as judo, the mind becomes so immersed in doing the activity, the rest of the world disappears. It’s like looking through the scope of a rifle. One of my first instructors used to say, “The only thing in your life right now is what’s happening today in class. If that’s not the case you’re wasting your time.” When we are doing judo the mind should be wholly focused on judo. Likewise, when a pianist is performing, the piano ought to be the only point of focus. Business dealings, playing chess, indeed all activities that people do, can be done better and more efficiently if the principle of kime is applied.

Developing kime is like weightlifting for the brain. Judo, in this sense, is particularly good for young minds. When young students train their brains to fully concentrate on executing judo techniques, the training undoubtedly carries over into other aspects of life, be it school or soccer.

Just Think It

These are only some of Judo’s principles that are applicable to daily life, there are many more. As the judoka progresses and matures, connections between what goes on in the dojo and life outside of it become evident. Fully appreciating judo means to incorporate lessons learned during training into all areas of life. Teachers and books can help us along, but ultimately they only point the way; it is up to us to do the work and think like judoka.

When judo is viewed as an approach to life, when the wisdom of judo is incorporated into the world beyond the dojo, then it becomes possible to grasp what it means to master judo, and life.

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