Last Saturday was the hands-down best seminar I've ever taken. The seminar was so good, I had to sign up for a private lesson before the thing was even over. (Not a cheap private, either.) And that private was so good, I had to get another 24 hours later before he left town. And in both privates, I felt like the first five minutes alone was worth the price of admission. It was truly inspirational to the point where I am back on the mats 6-7 days a week again. THANK GOD!
You know I've been totally poopy-headed about jiu jitsu for a while now. Between my meniscus last summer, and some political stuff that happened with academies, instructors, etc-- in the last year I moved away from my training-7-days-a-week self into a lackadaisical mindset where I was drifting further and further away from the art. I can look back and see that yes, truthfully, I was very busy with work and yes, I was going through fertility treatments and yes, I was spending more quality time with my husband... but bottom line, I was bored and too competitive and too ego-focused to enjoy jiu jitsu any more. Every training session was becoming more about winning or losing, more about being down on myself for being such a shitty blue belt, more about negativity and predictions that I would never get my purple if I couldn't even do X to an X-belt... etc. Bad juju for sure.
But then I took this best-ever seminar. The seminar and privates were taught by Rickson black belt Henry Akins, who used to run Rickson's academy in LA and now, with Antoni Hardonk, runs Dynamix MMA in Santa Monica, California. (Before this, I would have said the best seminar I'd ever taken was a tie between my instructor Donald Park and Rener Gracie.)
For perspective, aside from my usual instructors I've taken classes/seminars/privates with Relson, Royler, Rhalan, and Rener Gracie, Jacare, Johnny Ramirez, John Ouano, Cleber Luciano, Daniel Moraes, Val Worthington, Emily Kwok, Marcelo Garcia, Sonny Nohara, Hillary Williams, Eduardo Fraga, Denny Prokopos, Rodolfo Vieira, Leticia Ribeiro, Beatriz Mesquita, and others who are less well-known. I say this not to brag in any way, but just to say I have some experience outside my usual academy and that I try to explore different schools and perspectives on jiu jitsu.
The experience of training with Henry Akins blew me away, and I've spent the last couple days pondering how to explain it-- why was it so much better, and what makes a good private or seminar in my eyes. Now I am ready to dish. [in no particular order of importance]
1. He's fluent in English. Sounds harsh maybe-- but I can't help it that so much is lost even by a perfect translator. I took a seminar from Rodolfo Vieira and even his translators couldn't speak much English, so I missed out on a tremendous quantity of information. As Henry and Rickson have described it, this is "invisible" jiu jitsu-- the most important details are the ones you cannot discern just by watching. You have to feel it AND you have to know what you're "feeling for" and these things require a verbal explanation, not just demonstration.
2. He teaches in the 3 primary learning paths simultaneously. People learn in 3 primary modalities-- visual, kinesthetic, and aural. Some people are mostly visual (show them how to do it and they'll mimic you.) Some are mostly aural (explain it in words and they'll understand.) Some are kinesthetic (do it to them, and move them into position so they do it to you, and they get it.) Of course if you're teaching a roomful of accountants about the lastest changes in tax law, you won't need to walk around holding their hand as they write-- the kinesthetic won't much apply in some cases. But in jiu jitsu it is totally obvious that instructors will need to accommodate all three of these means of absorbing information. The best instructors are the ones who can share their knowledge in all three ways at once.
I think the most common problem I see with jiu jitsu instruction is the inability to put things into words. Instructors should not assume everyone in the audience has an equally good vantage point to observe the demonstration, and should not assume the students are all watching (sometimes, we're taking notes.) How many times have you been told to "put your hand here-- no here, no the other hand, no like this." Frustrating, isn't it? Wouldn't you rather hear "Put your head-side hand flat on the mat next to their jaw, fingers pointing out"-- of course!
Henry was extremely good at "using his words" while he was demonstrating the movements. I took notes nearly transcription-style because his explanations were concise, complete, and accurate. I could remember what he told me to do long after I remembered what it looked like. Of course his visual demonstrations were superb, but he has the nice habit several other instructors I've enjoyed share-- when he's wanting you to pay attention to something a particular hand or foot is doing, he snaps his fingers a few times or stamps his foot on the mat before doing the highlighted action. And thank God for his kinesthetic teaching skills. I could feel how the move should be done, and then when I tried to mimic him, he'd move me in the correct way if I wasn't doing it myself. This tripartite method of teaching reached every level of my brain, and my retention is through the roof.
3. He emphasizes attribute-free jiu jitsu. 99% of jiu jitsu people can recite the canned verbage about Helio being a runt and adapting the art for use by smaller weaker opponents. 99% of jiu jitsu people know you're not supposed to use strength to force a move. 99% talk the talk (myself included) but very damn few walk the walk. Henry is a medium-sized guy-- maybe 6', 170lbs-- but his techniques really appear to be executable by a teeny-weeny against a big big one. When he feels you pushing, straining, or exerting force, he corrects you. I can't possibly do this facet of the experience any justice-- because I'm writing this, not letting you see it for yourself, and because I'm a blue belt talking about something that's waaaay above my head. I can barely glimpse it myself, which is why I can't explain it or put it into words any better. Here's a little bit of what Henry said about this subject, during his interview with On The Mat:
"The thing is when I train I always try to train like I’m weak. I basically try to train like I’m a weakling. My own physical attributes I’m always going to have, no one can take away my strength or my speed, no one can take away my endurance except me, so I always try to train like a weak person. I say to myself when I do a technique would this work if he’s stronger than me or bigger than me or heavier than me. Would it work? Would what I am doing work? If it does, that’s the Jiu Jitsu I’m looking for, something that would work on everyone. . . I think with Rickson he has always stuck to the philosophy which is really knowing how to use leverage and never use strength in his techniques. Always finding an easy way to do something. Making sure that a technique works with either gi or no gi and also making sure the technique is applicable in a fight. Also making sure that everyone can use the technique, not just a big strong guy or just a small skinny fast guy, but the technique has to work everyone. He’s always trying to find a pure answer for any type of situation."
4. Credibility. Henry told us that back in the day, Rickson didn't allow any of this stuff to be taught outside his academy. I don't mean "outside of the Gracies," I mean to anyone who wasn't a Rickson student. Also, Henry was Rickson's son Rockson's best friend, and Henry was Kron's housemate at one point in time. So I'm sure he had access unparalleled in the jiu jitsu world, to one of the (if not the) best practitioners of the art. And, this was back when Rickson was still fighting. Henry was only the third American to get his blackbelt from Rickson and he got it in the era when those were few and far between. This is probably part of the whole attribute-free jiu jitsu thing-- it felt to me to be a purer, rarer, more elegant version of jiu jitsu than anything I've ever seen or felt before. I have not been training jiu jitsu until now. And Henry is motivated to share all that he can, which is good, because there aren't many people out there who have this kind of knowledge so close to the source AND with the ability to teach it effectively.
Rickson, Henry, and Kron on the day Henry received his blackbelt.
5. It's not limited to a sport focus. I think to some extent we've weakened this beautiful art by putting rules in place for competitions because now people craft games around the rules instead of around reality. Yeah, I don't want to risk being slammed on my neck if/when I triangle someone in a tournament. HOWEVER-- before I go to a tournament, I should know jiu jitsu that keeps me safe BEFORE I know jiu jitsu that complies with tournament rules and may make me vulnerable to danger in a rule-free setting. Jiu jitsu is a self-defense art and we should stay true to that. Sorry to spoil the fun for you berimbolo boys and girls out there; I don't think Henry will teach new berimbolo setups. But ask Marcelo Garcia how he felt after his MMA debut. It sucks getting punched while you're trying to do jiu jitsu.
I was deeply grateful for Henry's explanation of a mount escape that will keep me safe from face-bashing [Hint: it has NOTHING to do with protecting your face with your arms/hands.] And aside from collar chokes, Henry's material is independent of the gi. He won't show you how to pull guard or do a flying armbar (not terribly useful on concrete) nor will he encourage you to invert before a standing opponent (way to get your head kicked in.) His basic techniques are so profound, you'll walk away believing that mastery of those few concepts will render any spinny flippy newly-invented techniques totally harmless.
6. It's not about adding to your technique library. Henry told us "You know everything at blue belt you need for blackbelt-- except the timing and details." I don't like most seminars because they make me feel like I just stocked up on random hodgepodge low-percentage ingredients and I still don't know how to cook. Henry's the opposite. I saw so many damn similarities between concepts he taught, and so many other opportunities where the same concept would be useful-- it was like having fireworks in my head the whole time. So yeah, you'll get some very high-percentage "moves"-- but they're just vehicles for teaching you concepts, which appear over and over in all the other realms of your jiu jitsu. It's learning how to fish, instead of being handed a basket of fish.
7. The ordinary "good instructor" stuff still applies. He made time in the seminar for lots and lots of drilling, and he spent it walking around the room critiquing and doing mini-privates with everyone so they didn't just rep it three times and sit down and talk. He's not in it for the money and he doesn't make you feel stupid no matter how dumb the question. His genuine passion to share his knowledge to benefit your future safety (or so you can protect those you love) shines out of everything he does. He's humble, ridiculously so considering how phenomenally good he is. He's kind. And enthusiastic. And straightforward. During part of my private lessons (both of which were on escaping the cross side) he asked me something like "and what would you do from there?" So I thought about it a moment and casually tossed my leg over, saying "oh, go to mount." Without missing a beat, he said "oh, your mount sucks." Now I know I just finished saying he's kind, but that was a kind thing to say-- it was true, it was necessary, and he proceeded to fix at least some of my mount problems. So he doesn't ignore problems just because you're not aware of them.
I'd say one special element from Hillary's seminars was that she emailed all the attendees her own outline and notes explaining the techniques she taught...and in private lessons, she does something incredibly unique I wish everyone else did too: she continually asks you to restate what you do and why and in what order, in your own words. Her approach is very intellectual and academic in focus, like Henry's-- she wants you to know why you do something, and by asking you to repeat it back, she is always checking for errors in your comprehension. I found it nice because there were times I got it with my mind, but couldn't quite execute with my body just yet-- so I could at least tell her I wasn't a complete idiot even when my body betrayed me.
Anyway, can you tell, I have the biggest smile on my face every time I think of a detail from Henry's instruction. Training under him has brought new life and spirit and motivation to my study. I feel I have completely recaptured my whitebelt awe and excitement and "grasshopper-ness" and I could care less about winning or losing right now. It's all about being loose and flowy and using no attributes. It's all about listening to my opponent's body, asking myself where their base is and how I can use it against them. I no longer feel like quite such a loser for my inability to effectively invert or berimbolo or reverse DLR. I'm moving away from categorizing moves in my head and trying instead to feel things. Maybe I'm getting no better, but I'm having way more fun, so who cares :)
There's not much out there on Henry. Here's one of his Fightworks Podcast interviews in 2010, which has some cool Rickson anecdotes... and here's another about the opening of Dynamix.
I tried to embed the video of Henry teaching a tight kimura from cross side, but I couldn't figure out how to fix the broken HTML. So this is a link to said video, over on Sherdog's Technique of the Week back in 2011.
Henry spoke with the Flow podcast for their episode nine found here in which Henry discusses his views on jiu jitsu now, MMA, and Rickson.
If you can go to California and train with Henry, you won't be disappointed. Save your pennies and be ready to stay a few weeks at least. I'll see you there!