“I’m now going to teach you the secret of all martial arts” my sensei said to me. I was relieved; I’d just spent three times per week for the last six weeks learning and practicing my falls and at last I was going to learn “the good stuff.” My sensei then taught me happo no kuzushi (the eight forms of off balance). He very soberly informed me that “all attacks come from one of these directions” and that it was my ability to accept an attack from each of these directions that would determine my martial arts prowess. I’m sure he could tell how disappointed I was, since this was all Eastern philosophy mumbo jumbo to me and couldn’t possibly help me learn jujitsu. I just wanted to learn how to throw someone, and if not that, at least to learn how to break their arm, or something (As you can tell, I was bloodthirsty in those days!) He then told me to keep practicing my happo no kuzushi, and that as I achieved higher rank, it would mean more to me. I didn’t tell him this, but I knew he was wrong; there was no way happo no kuzushi could ever really help me learn jujitsu.

As I’m sure you may have guessed, despite my misgivings my sensei was right and I was wrong. The more rank I received, the more kuzushi meant to me. An epiphany came one day when I realized that my progress in attaining higher rank was driven by my better understanding of kuzushi, rather than simply obtaining a better understanding of kuzushi because of my rank.

At its simplest level, kuzushi means off balance and involves the use of the other person’s motion. I believe that most jujitsuans understand this intellectually, yet they have not made this intellectual understanding an integral part of their jujitsu. They don’t practice it, instead when an attack comes, they are more interested in stopping the attack and countering than they are in accepting the attack and allowing the attacker to choose his own way to die, by virtue of his kuzushi determining the technique to be used while he is in motion.

Let’s start with a few basic concepts to help understand the basic principles in order to use your assailant’s kuzushi in all of your techniques:

  1. Never deny anyone their right to attack you. When you stop their attack you are denying them that right. Stop their attack and you stop their kuzushi. In the dojo, your uki will wait and let you do your counter. In real life, if you stop their attack, they are simply going to make a different attack. If you keep them off balance and in motion, that isn’t possible.
  2. Move your body as one from your hara (your center). Don’t move your extremities. The movement of your arms and legs should be a result of moving your center in concert with your assailant.
  3. Become one with the other person. This isn’t Eastern philosophy, this has physical implications. You move when they move, at the speed they move and blend your movement with their attack You keep blending with them until they hit the ground. Only by fully accepting their attack and allowing your assailant to move in the direction he wants can you use your technique to the fullest without allowing him an opportunity to counter. It is important to understand that he can’t counter because you haven’t given him an opportunity to even realize that something is wrong and that a counter is necessary since you haven’t given him any resistance. It’s like a zen koan; how do you control without controlling?
  4. Zanshin (which means determination or commitment) counts. This isn’t flower arranging, this is jujitsu. Every fiber in your being must be devoted to accepting their attack and moving with them through the entire technique. Even your kiai demonstrates your commitment by summoning up your ki and extending it through your assailant. If you think that sounds like Eastern philosophy nonsense, ask one of my students. They’ll tell you that even my kiai helps connect us so that we move as one.

If you’re still reading, then you probably accept that there might be something to all of this. (If you’re not still reading, then none of this matters, does it?). Once you accept that there might be something to all of this, the question that arises is “How do I learn to use kuzushi?” The answer is the same as the answer that the New Yorker gave when asked by a lost tourist “How do I get to Carnegie Hall (Carnegie Hall is a well known performing arts theatre in New York)?” The New Yorker’s answer was simply “Practice, practice, practice.”

The next question is “What do I practice?” The answer is equally simple. Practice happo no kuzushi, it’s the secret of all martial arts. Since this may not be a sufficiently descriptive answer, let me suggest the following steps:

  1. Accept that understanding how to use kuzushi requires a lifetime of study. You will never master kuzushi, you will only become better at it by realizing how little you really know of it and how much more you need to learn.
  2. Practice slowly moving your entire body from your hara. Move your hips and navel and let their movement move your arms and legs. This will take a long time to get used to; we are used to moving our arms and legs and having our body follow.
  3. Relax by breathing through your navel. This means to make sure that you inhale and exhale from deep down in your belly, not through your chest the way we normally breathe. If you tighten up and use muscle, you will lose their kuzushi, thereby stopping their attack and giving them an opportunity to counter.
  4. Have your uki attack you slowly. Respond to these slow attacks by blending with the attack. For example, make sure that the block is driven by a turn of your hips and that it doesn’t stop the attack. Instead it allows the attack to continue, it’s just that the movement of your body as a direct result of the movement of your hips in concert with the block means that your face is no longer in the line of fire. Continue blending all the way through your response (i.e., all the way through the gaki – the execution of the technique). Don’t get excited and hurry it; you’ll lose all of the kuzushi that you just expended so much effort to use.
  5. Kiai from your hara, not your chest. Exhale the shout through the person, not just into the air. This kiai must demonstrate your total commitment to your action through the entire technique.

Let me stress that this practice must be performed slowly. Speed must come naturally through practice and, if you hurry, you will never learn it. Will it take longer to learn this way? Absolutely. However, once you understand kuzushi and how to use it, your techniques will be vastly improved. As a result, in the long run you will be a much better martial artist than you otherwise would have been; and that is what studying ju jitsu is all about, anyway.

If you continue to practice the use of kuzushi, you will find that all of your techniques will become better. In a throw, it will feel as if the uki threw himself. You will start to wonder if they are throwing themselves just to make you look good or not hurt your feelings. When you punch someone, it will feel like their face attacked your fist (Yes, this works for all techniques, including atemi waza). This is why my sensei said that happo no kuzushi is the secret of all martial arts. So now, let’s go to Carnegie Hall the only way I know how to get there: practice, practice, practice.