Akuzawa Minoru is giving his students the keys to the kingdom of martial arts. Three times a week he reveals ancient secrets of martial arts to his students in a small community center in the center of postmodern Tokyo. Many people have heard stories about venerable masters who can send men twice their weight flying through the air with ease, or drop someone in his tracks with the tap of a fist. Many people train for decades hoping to replicate the feats of long dead masters, only to find at the end that they have nothing.
What makes Akuzawa’s system, Aunkai, unique is that after only a few years of training his students are at a level that equals or surpasses high dan ranked teachers in aikido, karate and judo. It is a lie that a person must train for 20 years to even gain the basics of “high level” martial arts. Akuzawa’s system and the students he has trained, prove that conclusively. Aunkai is classical martial arts training that really works. The author witnessed two of Akuzawa’s students go toe to toe with professional and semi-professional mixed martial arts fighters in free sparring. Unlike many people who teach martial arts based on forms, Akuzawa encourages his students to enter full-contact competitions. The purpose of this article is to pull back the curtain on the secrets of various martial arts by introducing Aunkai to the world.
Aunkai is a martial art created by Akuzawa, combining his experience with the classical martial arts of China and Japan. The central idea of Aunkai is to train and develop the body to move with maximum efficiency. To accomplish the goal of maximum efficiency, the Aunkai curriculum is based on rigorous, mindful, daily training of solo exercises. The author first learned of Aunkai via web-based martial arts forums, traveling to Japan to experience Akuzawa’s teaching and method first-hand. Some of the classes emphasized the solo training exercises, while others focused on real application to the sport fighting format. The author also went with several of the senior Aunkai students to an open mat session with mixed martial arts fighter/competitors.
Akuzawa elucidated his views on bujutsu during an interview with the author. He has also demonstrated some of his most important conditioning exercises , as illustrated in the Technical Section.
Developing the Body
Akuzawa”s basic concept is to focus on developing the body for maximum efficiency so that a person can make what he calls pure movement.
He teaches that the right attitude for a practitioner when faced with combat is to focus inside on keeping one’s own internal structure together while moving according to set physical principles and not on what the other person is doing. Through the solo exercises , which are short forms, the practitioner gains greater stability, power and unity in movement. Forms are not repeated to gain muscle memory, or to drill technique, which is the usual explanation that people give. Rather, the forms are a framework to develop a particular kind of body that is suited to martial arts. The martial arts body is the attribute upon which technique happens. It is the martial arts body attribute that allowed someone like Ueshiba Morihei and others to accomplish what appear to be nearly magical feats of strength and coordination.
From the Aunkai Website:
” At its base, “Jutsu” is simply the knowledge of a person embodied within him. As such, it is subject to constant change. Unless you understand your own deficiencies, it is impossible to cultivate yourself. This cultivation is necessary if you wish to grasp what bujutsu is about. In a sense, the deepest secret of bujutsu is in realizng that your bujutsu is dependent on the unification of your mind (the ability to innovate on your own, not because someone told you to do so, or instructed you), and body (the forging of the body) through tanren which you continue for as long as you live.
In Aunkai, the practitioner is expected to analyze alignment and muscular habits in a detailed manner, trying to understand what it truly means to “stand” and “walk.” Some arts have defined this as stillness in movement, and movement in stillness. Put simply, Aunkai practitioners seek to achieve the same stability inherent in a static position while in movement. Doing the solo exercises fosters this and develops an acute awareness and adjustment of many things inside the body that are not immediately visible externally to someone looking from the outside. In the Aunkai training Akuzawa emphasizes attention to the feeling in the body at any given moment.
The body is broken up into three “jiku” or axes. The center axis runs straight from the crown of the head through the perineum. The other two are the left side of the body and the right side of the body. Each of the exercises in Aunkai is designed to strengthen and stabilize a particular axis of the body and then connect the axes together as a unit. The practitioner strives to strengthen the feeling of connection in his or her body.
During the initial training the student is urged to focus on the “Juji” or cross. This is the feeling of connection in the center of the chest and the upper back between the shoulder blades. The lower cross (also called the tanden or dantian) is not focused on until the student has stabilized the upper cross.
Once the student stabilizes the upper cross, they are expected to work to create a feeling of connection between the upper and lower body. Physically this means that any action at one extremity is automatically transmitted to a corresponding extremity. For example, if movement is initiated in the foot, it is automatically seen in the corresponding hand with zero time delay.
One way to look at it is like a mechanism with a couple of big gears in the middle and smaller and smaller gears working outwards toward the extremities. But if one gear moves, all the gears move because they’re all mechanically interconnected.
This is different from kinetic linking, where one extremity is torqued and the power passed incrementally through the body (as in a boxer twisting his rear leg when executing a hook)
In the beginning of training, the student uses tension to achieve the feeling of connection. In the long term the student is expected to soften up and eliminate the use of muscular tension, yet still maintain the feeling of connection throughout the body.
The Aunkai dojo has practitioners with a variety of martial arts backgrounds. Aunkai students come from a variety of backgrounds including (in no particular order) Northern Mantis, Aikido, Taikiken, Kyokushinkai karate, Systema, Wing Chun, Shooto, and Judo.
The practitioners with whom the author trained were highly self-motivated individuals. A typical class is conducted informally, devoid of the yelling, screaming and stultifying scraping that is quite common to modern martial arts practice. Therefore the students must have self-motivation in order to improve. Additionally, because improvement in Aunkai is predicated upon personal solo practice, a practitioner must develop or possess a strong sense of motivation to practice without needing external reinforcement.
The author participated in several classes at the Aunkai dojo in Tokyo, Japan, and will describe the general sequence of the classes. Each class began with solo exercises (tanren), led by Akuzawa’s senior students. The tanren are physically and mentally taxing. While the students work through the exercises, Akuzawa circulates around the room and corrects the students by twisting or pushing their bodies into the right position. Akuzawa’s corrections felt like having a malleable iron bar pushed into one’s skeleton. Sumo stamping (shiko), horse stance (mabu) and heaven-earth-man (tenchijin ) were all practiced by the author in class. Shiko and tenchijin will be described more in depth in the Technical/Photo section.
After warming up with exercises that emphasize staying in one place, the class moves on to what looked like Chinese long boxing (Chang Quan) basic stretching kicks. However, in the Aunkai the students are not trying to kick as high as possible. Instead they are instructed to simply lift the leg, return it to the start point, and then step. The development of the upper cross is paramount in this exercise and the students are admonished to focus on maintaining stability in the upper cross. At home, the students are encouraged to practice this drill with a stick across the upper back. The students practice several different varieties of the leg lifting drill.
Once the class has finished with the solo exercises, the students partner up. In the partner exercises the students are expected to take the strength and feeling of connection developed from the solo exercises and maintain it against some level of resistance. Akuzawa’s partner exercises put the students into awkward positions, forcing them to generate structure and connection against resistance. These exercises come from Akuzawa’s training with a koryu teacher. The theory is that if the student can learn to create the proper frame in their body under extremely unfavorable circumstances, the student will be able to easily find the proper feeling and frame in a less compromised stance.
The author participated in a number of partners exercises with the class.
In this drill the students stand with feet parallel, facing each other. The goal of pushout is for the student to learn to develop balance and stability in a compromised and awkward position. The theory is that a person who can maintain balance in a compromised position will have an easier time maintaining balance in a less compromised position. The Aunkai students all displayed remarkable stability in this stance. Using typical body movement it is difficult to maintain balance with the feet parallel when someone is pushing, without leaning forward against the push. However, with proper use of the bodyskill learned through the Aunkai tanren, it is possible. The author witnessed a person who is capable of benchpressing over 250 pounds attempt to push Akuzawa over with all his strength, to no avail.
Hard Push hands
Literally, “hard.” In this exercise 2 students stand in a front stance and alternate between pushing and receiving. The students are admonished to use maximum tension, so that they can feel the frame within their body developing. One student pushes, while the other resists, and eventually turns and becomes the pusher. This was an interesting counterpoint to the author’s experience with push hands in Chinese arts, where maximum relaxation was always emphasized.
A Note About Tension:
Martial arts students are often advised against the use of tension. However, in Aunkai, the practitioner initially uses tension during tanren to create the feeling of connection within the body. Over time the practitioner learns to relax and use less tension while still maintaining the feeling of connection. The author has spoken to several of the Aunkai students who have reported that they have gone through a process of becoming tenser (in their movement) and then over time relaxing as they continued in the Aunkai training.
Training For the Ring
One of Akuzawa’s teachers was a teacher of close quarters combat for the Japanese Self Defense Forces. He taught Akuzawa a number of punching drills to develop speed and power. In spear punching, the practitioner takes a deep front stance and punches from a hip chamber. The back leg is locked. The target is either a focus mitt, or the gloved hand of a partner.
Akuzawa was quick to point out that he wasn’t advocating going into the ring in a deep front stance, which, as he said, would be stupid. Rather, he said that the point of the exercise was to learn to make a “frame” in the body in an awkward position. This necessitates feedback feelings in the form of the hand hitting the glove/focus mitt. Once the practitioner learns to make the frame in the body in an awkward position, it is comparatively easy to make frame in a less awkward position, such as a typical hands up boxing stance.
The author participated in this drill and found that indeed there was a feeling of connection between the punching hand and back foot. When he stood up to punch in a more natural stance, it was far easier to find the frame/connection than previously.
Akuzawa and his students have a different take on power than the metric used by many strikers. Instead of focusing on how much sound is made by hitting the pads, or on how much a heavy bag vibrates when hit, Akuzawa and his students focus on how much their strikes disrupt the structure of another person.
It is difficult to convey in words exactly how different the Aunkai way of striking is. However, the author received kicks from Akuzawa and a mix of kicks and punches from his students. The author can report that for minimal movement by the striker, the author’s skeleton and balance were severely disrupted.
While the Aunkai training program may seem unlikely, the author went with two of the Aunkai practioners, Robert John and Watanabe Manabu to an open mat session where they grappled with some shooto (MMA) fighters. The author observed both Aunkai students grappling with a number of people, including a pro shooto fighter.
Both John and Watanabe more than held their own. Neither man had more than a cursory experience with submission grappling prior to his training under Akuzawa.
Comparing Aunkai with Western Sports Science Methods:
In the typical Western sports science methods, solo training the body for fighting is accomplished through strenuous high repetition calisthenics and/or weight lifting. This is supplemented with cardiovascular training and plyometrics. Partner training consists of repeating techniques against increasing levels of resistance, up to and including free sparring practice.
Note: There is still debate in some circles over the utility of free sparring as a teaching and learning tool, since some practitioners claim their skills are too deadly for the ring and that practicing in a free sparring mode will diminish their ability. The author considers the debate over. For the vanishing minority who still doubt the utility of free practice, consider the fact that several branches of the US military use wrestling/sparring practice as foundational for close quarters battle. In fact, the US Army maintains a close quarters battle/martial arts program led by Matt Larsen that continues to receive feedback from troops in the field. The author sincerely doubts that any of the “too deadly for the ring” advocates have the experience and institutional knowledge about close quarters battle possessed by the US Army.
On the other hand, the Aunkai method stresses intense, personal solo practice conducted at slow speed. In the solo practice the students are not moving explosively at all. Furthermore, Akuzawa does not teach codified technique as such to his students. The students do not engage in repetitive technique practice, nor in extensive sparring practice. Rather, Akuzawa focuses the most on building the body for bujutsu and teaching his students the proper principles of movement through the solo exercises. The students then test their body development at varying levels of intensity, up to and including free sparring.
In addition to the Aunkai group in Tokyo, there is also a growing contingent of people experimenting with the Aunkai curriculum who are outside of Japan. This is because of two factors. The first factor is Akuzawa’s openness and the second is the power of information technology and the internet.
Though many teachers of internal martial arts have historically hidden the fundamentals of their arts, Akuzawa instead takes a more open approach to training his students. Akuzawa is fond of information technology metaphors. For example, he explained that training develops a network in the body, with the students having a DSL network, while he has a fiber optic network. Because of this, and the fact that a number of the Aunkai students work in the IT industry, Aunkai students have leveraged the internet as a means of information sharing. Rob John, one of the students, has spearheaded the effort to use information technology as a resource. John has posted videos of various exercises on Youtube. He has also written and posted instructions on how to do the tanren to various webforums. As a result, there is a growing community of people who are trying out the exercises on their own, collaborating online, and then meeting up to experiment, or making trips to Japan to train at the Aunkai dojo.
There are other teachers who may have similar information on training the body. However, many choose to keep their art secret and the information limited. This creates a situation where few people, if any are able to rise to the level of their famous ancestors. In a sense, martial arts instructors compete for the attention of students. In a world where anyone can log onto the internet and investigate the background of an instructor it is those who can produce results that will draw the best and smartest students.
Akuzawa and his Aunkai have been very successful at drawing students from all over Japan and the rest of the world. As his students make their first forays into semi-professional competition, it will be interesting to see how everything old is new again.