I've been thinking a lot about Judo lately. On December 1st, my sensei promoted me to yellow belt, which was exciting if only because it matches my blue gi well. It's nice to see progress recognized, even if the belt system can seem very arbitrary (I've sparred with some yellow belts who were clueless, and some higher belt folks have forgotten basic things).
The more I learn about Judo, the more subtleties I see that I've yet to internalize. For instance, when I first started, I often became frustrated because it seemed to me that despite all the talk of minimizing effort and using one's opponent's weight against him, actually throwing someone required great strength. I would look around and think that everybody must be stronger than I was, because when I tried to throw, I felt that I had to exert so much. But after 6 months, I'm finally starting to figure out kuzushi1, and the techniques make more sense now. With the right kuzushi, throws feel effortless for both parties. A good Judoka was demonstrating uchi mata on me, and it felt like nothing was happening until I landed on the mat after spinning through the air. A poorly executed uchi mata feels like a kick in the groin and an awkward, hard fall. Technique, and especially kuzushi, make all the difference. A clean throw should make uke2 feel like he's going for a pleasant ride through the air, followed by a clean landing, distributing the impact across the body. Bad technique is painful, like when my foot sweeps were more kicks to the shin than anything resembling a sweep.
This focus on continually improving the technique keeps me interested. I'm turned off by the brute strength in typical MMA style grappling, and I'm surprised that I used to watch UFC matches on TV. These days, they're pretty much lugheads bashing each other. On the other hand, watching the old masters demonstrate the gokyo inspires me with their effortless execution3.
Judo has made me stronger and better balanced. Whereas wrestling requires extra strength training to compete, just doing Judo (and the many many uchikomi4 we do) builds enough strength to do the techniques. How do you move someone 100lbs heavier who doesn't want to move? You push and pull in little movements, using the whole body. All of this searching for kuzushi ends up strengthening one's core muscles such that the body becomes more spring-like. Every step and movement in a throw contributes towards maximizing the explosive power from the body. It's really an amazing thing.
Sometimes we talk amongst ourselves about how challenging sparring can be with a heavier Judoka, and then we wonder how a real life situation would look. Judging from the ease of throwing most normal people who walk onto the mat for the first time, I'd say that Judo would seriously injure someone on the street. It's sobering to think that some of the throws that we do to each other every day might kill a person who didn't know Judo or at least understand how to fall correctly.
Aside from the physical aspects, Judo has helped me stay...err, grounded. And it's helped me with some personal adversity and stress where I may have crumbled before. I don't know; I'm still often surly. Maybe Judo can't help with that aspect, but it reminds me that at the end of the day, someone is going to launch me into the air onto my back. If you can pick yourself up off the mat every time, suddenly those other life problems aren't so abiding.