Robert John - Breaking down internal skills

Robert John is one of the very first students of Akuzawa Minoru sensei in Aunkai, as well as one of the top instructors of the school. Over the years, Rob has worked on deconstructing the skills that make Aunkai, separating them from the more visible body conditioning part of the training, and used them to help replicate skills Akuzawa sensei is known for, in a fraction of the time normally needed.
Today, Rob talks us through the differences between skills and conditioning and gives us some insights into how we can improve the way we train.

How did you start martial arts?

I started when I was a kid. I wanted to do Karate, and my mother agreed to enroll me in a community center class. After the teacher started using Nunchucks and Sai, my mother freaked out because she thought Karate was supposed to be empty handed - and that the damn foreigners were teaching something “violent”.
I do find it ironic that my mother, who is Japanese from Kagoshima, made this assumption. Instead she enrolled me in Kendo, which I pursued for a time.

I picked it back up when I was in University - the summer trainings at Ken-zen in NYC were particularly brutal. Summer heat combined with sweaty Kendo gear is never pleasant, but somehow I kept on going back to it.

Occasionally we’d get some Manga nerd who wanted to learn Ruroni Kenshin moves, and our instructor Stan, a Japanese American from Hawaii would quip
“If you want to learn self defense - better learn Colt - 45”

How did you come to meet Akuzawa sensei and discover the Aunkai?

I found Akuzawa-sensei by chance in a Google search. At the time, I had just arrived in Tokyo from NY, where I had been training a bit under Sam Chin and his student Dave. My only reference for that kind of feel was based on my experience with Sam and Dave, so I was looking for someone who would teach the mechanics regardless of form.

I spied a banner off of a Chinese Martial Arts page, which said that they taught Hsing-i, Toshukakuto and Sanda.
I knew Sanda was the kickboxing rule set under which various Chinese martial arts competed. Plus Sam respected Hsing-I for its simplicity - so I immediately called the advertised number.

Sensei picked up the phone and was greeted by a barrage of questions by this half Japanese kid from the US. I told him very directly that I was interested in Internals, their mechanics, and had zero interest in forms - and did he teach that? Looking back, that was really rude of me. He barked back to me over the phone that it was probably best that I head over to his dojo and touch hands. So I did, and that’s how I came to know him.


Akuzawa Minoru,

© Julie Glassberg for Yashima


Did you immediately realize he was special?

I wish I could say I was bright enough to immediately see the light and understand what a genius he was.
The reality is that my interaction left me a bit perplexed. He certainly felt connected. And when we interacted in certain drills he would off balance me - but I didn’t feel the same overwhelming ground power that I felt from Sam. Nor the direct manipulation of my centers that Dave favored to freeze me in place when doing Bagua Roushou like exercises.
Actually I didn’t feel much of anything…

So I assumed he was pretty good - but that Sam was far more awesome than Akuzawa sensei.
Boy oh boy was I wrong...

Were the mechanics similar to what you studied with Sam Chin?

In college, I trained in two different Chinese martial arts. One was QiXing Tang Lang coming from Yu Tian Cheng, under a polish graduate student called Krys.
Krys was extremely gifted, and made us work basic (jibengong) exercises to death. Each class was murder on the legs. He had us do a conditioning form that ran through basic shaolin stances. We had to hold each stance in a low posture for about 1-2 min, and it took about 20 min to run through the sequence. Then it was followed by basic two-person patterns. Krys was adamant that we examine and think about the “Shen fa” or body mechanics that made the movements work - specifically mentioning the waist. There was then lots and lots of sparring. I guess the idea of practical applications was always at the forefront of my mind thanks to Krys.

In many ways the tactics and some mechanics of QiXing Tanglang overlapped with boxing - which I noted when I spent a couple summers going to a boxing gym in upstate NY.

Krys eventually graduated so I was left to my own devices, although I continued to train Kendo at the University. There happened to be a cultural fair held at SUNY Albany, and this is where I happened to meet Sam Chin’s daughter, Yen.
Yen and I somehow got to talking about martial arts, and before I knew it, I was doing push hands with her. She was pretty good and someone started talking about how her father was a famous Taiji master.

Since I’d never met a so-called internal person before (although I did do a couple months of Chen style under a Chinese graduate student), I was curious as to what that meant - so I made it a point to get out to Sam’s class where he trained people at a Buddhist monastery. Sam wasn’t there that day, and Dave was filling in. He and I got to talking - and eventually did some push hands. Dave commented on how my footwork was nice, and asked if I did (The tanglang footwork drills probably made it obvious). He then proceeded to shut my upper center and lower center down. It was the oddest feeling... I felt like I couldn’t move. If I were to take a step, I would lose my balance and fall over.

Dave was extremely generous in his time with me - and I would drive down to train with him at his home close to the Hudson River, where he brain dumped on me ideas about structure, gravity, pivot points on the point of contact, horizontal, frontal and sagittal planes. How the Kua, mingmen, dantien, chest interacted with each other, as well ground reaction force (although he didn’t term it that way). All of these concepts, and more were way over my pay grade as a young 20 something - who had no clue what he had gotten himself into.

Then I met Sam, who was just qualitatively different. He’s much slimmer now, but back then he was massive. And connected.
As soon as he touched me I could feel the floor - and when he would produce a frontal, sagittal or horizontal force it was unmistakable.

Are there overlapping concepts?
Maybe - I would have to compare notes. But concepts like the “balance beam” concept he espoused make much more sense to me now than they did then. On the surface it overlaps with my understanding of “Standing on a point” as described by Akuzawa sensei. So it’s a discussion I would love to have.

There is a significant divergence in how I use the body now vs then. But I would chalk that up more to the fact that I didn’t understand Iliqchuan concepts properly at the time.

For a while, you trained much more outside of the dojo than inside. Why was that?

Well to be honest, for a long while I had a bad reaction to some antibiotics that caused my nervous system to go haywire.
Suffice to say I wasn’t in the best place to train, and it took about 2-3 years to get back to normal. Then work made it more difficult to attend training, but I realized that most of my training could be done outside of class. In fact, Akuzawa sensei often said class was simply where you reviewed the homework questions. The real work should be going on outside of class.

At the time, Alex Lee was also crashing on my floor while he was looking for a new place to live. So he ended up brain dumping a lot of his theories on how Akuzawa sensei moved onto me, and we would take a lot of walks where he’d adjust my posture and ask me to observe the differences.
Walking up hill, walking downhill. Observing the importance of precarious balance, it’s impact on how the body managed forces once the body was in motion etc.

Much to my annoyance, he would always choose around 2:00 am as the time to start really fiddling around with stuff. My brain would do its best to keep up, but it was quite difficult to focus. For better or worse, these sessions added up - and I became accustomed to doing most of my experiments outside of class.

I also felt that being within a classroom structure did limit how I was able to view the problem at hand, which was deciphering Sensei’s skill set. While in class, most people would only ever execute motions without considering other solutions or options. Going outside of class allowed me to think “outside of the box”.

In recent years, you’ve been working on breaking down the skills that make Aunkai, to refine the way it is being taught. What brought you to do that?

Jeez... go straight for the jugular!
Well it was always my desire to break these skills down.
As someone famous said, if you can’t explain a concept to a four year old, you probably don’t really understand it at all.

I would have to say the person most directly responsible for allowing me to decipher what Akuzawa sensei is doing, is Alex Lee.

Alex lived in Japan twice.
The first time he came over, we had been chatting online, and he had formed his own theories on how Akuzawa sensei’s mechanics worked. I told him I disagreed and we agreed to postpone this conversation until he visited Japan.

To paint a vibrant picture - Alex is one of those legit genius types.
He opted to leave college to go work for NASA. He was a hardcore nerd in a good way. Super analytical, and an excellent rally car driver (something that worked to his advantage when understanding Sensei’s racing analogies, which I didn’t get, to be honest since I didn’t race), he couldn’t be more different from the picture of a fit martial artist.
More at home on the couch munching on pocky, he spent a lot of his time mucking around with videos of Akuzawa sensei, and comparing them to videos of known luminaries such as Chen Xiao Wang.

Looking for overlaps, and discarding the differences, he formulated his own theories as to how Sensei’s exercises actually worked.
Also, Alex was the unfortunate recipient of a spinal and neck injury that prevented him from practicing in the hardcore.
Ironically this injury is also what propelled him to focus on a different aspect of training than what I and other members of the Aunkai were doing at the time.

As we were comparing notes in my apartment, we were bickering a bit over theory and he was insisting I was leaning, while I disagreed.. And then he abruptly threw me clean onto my apartment floor. He took my balance, and I realized I never recognized it being taken - which was a very “Akuzawa” thing to do. Up until then, no one in training was ever able to throw me - so when Alex threw me, I was convinced right then and there he was onto something.

Fast forward a couple of years, and Alex wanted to confirm his theories - so I organized a session between Alex, myself and Akuzawa sensei. The resulting discussion was probably the most illuminating one and confirmed most if not all of Alex’s theories at the time - especially concerning absorption, balance and how Akuzawa sensei managed forces.

This session really boosted my overall understanding of how Akuzawa sensei approached practice. But it was also only possible because of the razor sharp questions Alex would throw at him.

“So Sensei, when the force goes in, does it go through your front or back?”
“The front”
“But it doesn’t go directly to the feet right? It has to zigzag somewhat as it passes through the joints, which is why you use the analogy of an accordion”
“Exactly, and I also think I do it that way because I’m a smaller person. If I were a larger individual, I might do the orthodox thing and ground a force in my feet”

This exchange prompted me to really take a hard look at what Akuzawa sensei was doing and reevaluate everything from the ground up.

You often separate skills from conditioning. What makes a skill? And why is this important?

Skills refer to things that don’t take a lot of time to do initially. Such as manipulation of the chin to then affect the chest, Hara and arch of the legs. This kind of manipulation is essential to absorb forces and reduce the pressure felt at the point of contact when someone gives a force.

Standing on a point is typically a skill defined by an alignment where your body is so perfectly balanced you waver. In this state when you simply touch someone, you’re able to get them to tip over.

None of these things require strength or even experience to do - but you become better at doing them over time.

Robert John

© Jo Keung

What is the role of conditioning?

Conversely conditioning is the muscle, tissue and fascial development that supports the execution of skills.

The problem is that I myself, as well as many others often confused the results born from physical conditioning with actual skills.
Say for example when I was “unthrowable” this was due to the fact that I had trained my posterior chain to be very strong, and I would mentally lower my forces so that I would ground forces at the feet - but I could not affect people like Akuzawa sensei was able to.

This is a trap that I see a great many people fall for.

What would you do to bring someone from Zero to Hero in Aunkai if you only had 4 weeks? What if you had 6 months?

4 weeks... wow
That’s tough - I guess it depends on the goal.

Since we are limited on time, we’d have to identify what they want in a short period.

I’m also assuming I could run them through a boot camp of 5-6 hour training a day, 5 days a week.
The first thing would would involve rewiring their basic standing posture, then how they walk, and then other movements in life.
To make it functional, I’d also include basic hand strikes and kicks to be trained during the latter half of the course.
The key thing would be to provide a way for the participant to adjust themselves via everyday movement even after they leave the course.

Since most people’s posterior chains are neurologically stronger than their anterior chain, I would probably include endless reps of exercises designed to integrate the use of the anterior chain into movements we use everyday in life -

Actually the core of what I want to accomplish wouldn’t change if I had 6 months - although at this point I would most likely start adding the more specific training exercises that we see in our curriculum, such as Ashiage, Shintaijiku, Maho, Shiko etc.

For a 6 month training course we have the luxury of more time, so the first month could be devoted to rewiring the body in everyday movements, the second month could be spent memorizing the basic solo exercises so they can immediately start applying those movement patterns in a useful way to said solo exercises as they start to build their conditioning. Third month would introduce mitt work that means learning basic hand strikes and kicks, alongside basic applications.

I think this would be more than enough to keep people busy for the remaining 3 months. The goal wouldn’t be to add more movements and techniques, but to go deeper into basic movements/techniques and make them practical/usable.
If you want to use them under pressure, sparring is also unavoidable.

What should an Aunkai student be able to do after 1 year, 3 years, 5 years?

After the first year - you should be able to have most of the exercises memorized.
By the end of the first year, you should have a decently conditioned “frame”, your kicks should start to feel a bit heavier, and your friends will probably start complaining that you’re weirdly heavy.

By 3 years, you should be able to start to grasp how the anterior chain affects your ability to absorb forces. That is, if someone pushes on you, you should be able to reduce the amount of pressure they feel they are exerting on you.

By 5 years, you should have a better grasp of the anterior chain, how rotational forces or “winding” work in the Aunkai, as well as how “standing on the point” is the source of kuzushi. At this point all the talk of opposing 6 directional forces, dropping, torque, input/output forces etc should be more than theory. In fact, I expect at the five year point, one should be able to recognizably replicate some of the movement patterns and “tricks” that Sensei is known for.

What are the biggest mistakes people do when they train in Aunkai? How can you avoid them?

The biggest mistake I see is an approach to training that ends up developing the backside/posterior chain.

This results in people who are heavy, hard to move, and might even be able to replicate some of Sensei’s demos, but miss the ability to accurately absorb forces. Essentially you become accomplished at recreating demonstrations through an advanced form of bracing, and weight management that utilizes the posterior chain. This is opposed to the use of the anterior chain to absorb, rotate joints and compress forces to the hara, erase forces at the feet, making them light, all while combining “standing on a point” alignment to imbue kuzushi into any movement.

Probably the most telling thing is that people who become overly strong in the backline aren’t aware that the mechanics are based in bracing, and they aren’t even aware that they’re using a strength that’s different from what Akuzawa sensei is using. In fact this comes to color all their movement patterns resulting in something that on the surface looks kind of similar, but is obviously different.

So to avoid these pitfalls - first keep an open mind.

I found the largest hints contained in movements where Sensei would mess around with when others were doing warmups.
No warmup, no movement, no group of people should really be beneath you. Be open to training with anyone - no matter their rank.
I dabble in BJJ, and it helps to keep an open mindset as I regularly get my butt kicked on the ground. But it reminds me that there’s something to learn from everyone.

Shutting people out in exercises like push out, or walking maho is a sure fire way to amplify bad habits of bracing, and only shows that one doesn’t understand what the exercises are designed to teach.

I watched Sensei always pick the weakest people like female students at Hombu as practice partners - while wearing slippers...
And then when people would apply Waza, he would always take ukemi. But when he took Ukemi, I noticed he had control throughout the entire movement. This meant that by accurately managing the forces in his body as someone applied waza on him, in reality he was training his body as well to better manage forces.

What is the value of using weapons such as a bo or a bokken to train the body?

Staff will teach you how to use your centerline, balance, anterior chain and more in a very practical way. Used correctly it develops skill AND conditioning in a very balanced way.

Bokken is actually more difficult than Bo/staff when done correctly, but again it teaches a more free form use of cutting and thrusting movements that require precise use of your centerline, hara, compression, anterior chain and more.

What would you recommend to a person who wants to start Aunkai but doesn’t have an instructor nearby?

We have a variety of online sessions now ongoing. I know that you (Xavier) are offering online sessions. To people reading this article (and it might be awkward for Xavier since I know he’s editing this article), I would highly recommend him if you’re in the APAC region. 

In the US, we have Alex Lee teaching on Sunday morning Eastern Standard time, during which Akuzawa sensei also instructs twice a month.

As for Europe, some of the French dojos are working together to provide online training every weekday evening, with five different instructors.

And of course, Akuzawa sensei is also offering online sessions to both existing groups and people who want to discover the art.

I occasionally teach a group that includes a dedicated bunch of students headed by Nicolas in Holland, along with other students from the United Kingdom.

Last but not least, I would like to mention that Manabu sensei, Hanshi, will be teaching a bootcamp in France from 12 to 15 June. Manabu sensei is one of the very first students to study under Akuzawa sensei, so I highly recommend people to take this chance.

Suffice to say, if you’d like to experience a session, feel free to reach out to us via our website - and we will try to connect you to one that fits your schedule

Hong Kong:

You recently started a series of livestreams with Alex Lee and Hunter Lonsberry, what do you aim to achieve with those?

My longtime friend Hunter actually dragged me into doing these - and he very much wanted to raise some awareness of what we’ve been working on in the Aunkai here at Hombu, as well as give people a more “interactive” venue to ask questions, while entertaining our audience. We tackle a variety of subjects on the livestreams, ranging from analyzing videos, to relating relevant stories of training in Aunkai from back in the day, to fielding questions as well as random guests. In fact we do intend to start inviting various Aunkai instructors from around the world on the livestream to better showcase what’s available.

To be made aware of the next livestreams, you can join the Aunkai facebook group.


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