There are no mirrors in our dojo.
There are several reasons for this:
For us its not practical, the wall space is being used by other items (for example, weapons).
Its dangerous. We have, what one senior calls a " functional dojo". The weapons on the wall are all real and available when fighting occurs (provided you know how to and have been trained in using the weapon). With the exception of the ceremonial (yet very real and sharp) katana which are out of the way of the curious children's hands, every other weapon is at an accessible height. In our school, when we fight, being kicked into a wall or thrown into the wall as part of a self defense scenario is a very real possibility.The two craters we have caused (I was involved in both and they have since been patched) in our wall attest to this. Getting thrown into a mirror usually ends up with a visit to the hospital E.R. and presents a hazardous situation to other students.
The main reason we don't have mirrors however is that it allows you to remain focused.
I have studied in dojos with mirrors and I am aware that the only person I need to be looking at in the mirror is myself. Usually that is how the class will start out. I will be focusing on myself and then one of my classmates will execute a technique that's higher than mine or faster and I will find myself inadvertently comparing my techniques to theirs. Its not a conscious act, this is all happening on a subtle level that requires constant vigilance. If left unchecked it becomes a full blown expression of ego in a place where ego is not welcome. This has the potential to occur in any dojo. What I have found and what has been my experience is that when there are no mirrors, it limits the distractions and allows for greater focus.
I always tell the students, when you are training don't look left or right focus on what you need to do. Don't compare yourself to others, especially in the dojo, because there is always going to be someone stronger, faster, more naturally gifted, or more proficient. If you look around you can always find an excuse not to try harder, not to give it your all. That is not the purpose of the dojo. When you enter on the floor the only person you need to be thinking about is that person you were the last time you stepped on the floor. Were you able to do ten push ups last time, well aim for fifteen this time or twenty. Maybe last time your body wasn't at 100% and today you feel much better, then you push yourself harder today. The inverse may also be true and you may need to scale back the training today to take into account that your body may feeling sub par.
So here is the other side to that situation. Since we are travelling together on this individual path, it is my obligation as someone who may be along further on the path to help out those who have just begun. This is the essence of the Sempai / Kohai relationship. Those who are seniors help those who are juniors. The juniors will look to the seniors to see how things are done. In a very real way the seniors are the mirrors for the juniors. This has been driven home recently by our two young green belts who have taken on assisting as part of becoming green belts. To reach green belt in our school means that on average you have been training for 3-4 years. They are not in the strict sense, beginners. Yet when these green belts were placed in front of white belts to teach them basic techniques, I could see the nervousness and the excitement. It has added a dimension to their path that they were not aware of and now they are realizing that you do not truly learn until you have to teach another.
In our lives we would do well to adopt this attitude of focusing on ourselves and yet not forgetting those who come after us. I know it has served me well in my martial path as well as my writing ( where I am the novice). We have to stop worrying so much about what others are doing and pursue our lives, our passions and those things that bring us joy and excitement. The key is not stopping there, but encourage others, through your example, your words, and actions to do the same. When they need help offer it. Sometimes its a gentle nudge, sometimes it needs to be gentle shove, but if you do it from a place of truly seeing others grow and have their lives transform for the better, then its worth it.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Next week: I will begin the instructor interview series and feature one of our instructors in the post. If you have any questions you would like to ask an instructor please email them to me at sensei.orlando(at)yahoo.com
Settle in and get comfortable, grab a cup of your favorite beverage, this is going to be lengthy post.
Last month I was involved in a conversation with some fellow martial artists ( men and women) about how women have been oppressed since the dawn of time on a global scale. That is not the topic of this post, nor have I been on this planet since the dawn of time so I cant offer a point from that perspective. However, one point that was brought up in the broad scope of the topic specifically focused on how women have not been allowed to be warriors. Could they be warriors now in our modern age? We discussed it back and forth, but the thought stayed with me. Can women be warriors? Have there ever been female warriors or has this always been a male dominated subculture?
Before I even went into history to examine the veracity of the statements made by my colleagues, I drew on my own experience. I have been in several schools in my martial path. All of them had a mixed population, although the harder styles tended to lean towards male students. I wondered if this was because the style was hard or were the women being treated differently? I took some impromptu polls of female students and found that in some schools they are treated differently than the men. For example, some women have been cautioned against doing push-ups off their knees because they are perceived as not strong enough. Others were told that they couldn't strike certain surfaces because it was too hard for a woman.
In my personal experience I have stood in front of some formidable female warriors. In most cases I outweighed them by a good 50-100 pounds. Not one of them flinched at this size or weight disparity, in fact they relished it because it allowed them to really execute their techniques. One senior student used to stand about six inches away from me and still manage to kick me in the head full force. Another was such a technician with her hands and evasive maneuvers it was like fighting smoke, until you got hit. Were these women the exception? I don't believe so.
So lets see if there are any precedents.
Fu Hao was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty and, unusually for that time served as a military general and high priestess.
Tomoe Gozen is thought to have been a late twelfth century female samurai, an onna bu geisha who may have pioneered the two sword style made famous in the 17th century by Miyamoto Mushashi.
The daughter of a Duke, Princess Pingyang raised and commanded her own army in the revolt against the Sui Dynasty. Later on her father would become Emperor Gaozu.
The Spartan princess Arachidamia is said to have fought Pyrrhus ( of the phrase pyrrhic victory) with a group of Spartan females under her command, and killed several soldiers before perishing.
The British Queen Boudicca led a revolt against the Roman Empire in 60 AD, but was decisively defeated.
Emilia Plater was a Polish noblewoman who fought as a Captain in the November 1830 uprising against Russia.
The Roman Empire was known to occasionally have women fighting called gladiatrix.
The Dahomey a people who live in Western Africa established an all female militia, who served as royal bodyguards to the king.
In Native American history, most of the Native American tribes contained a group of respected and well established women who were leaders of their militia. These leaders determined the fate of prisoners of war among other tribal decisions. Europeans and early American settlers refused to deal with the Native American women on such matters leading to their significance not being understood or appreciated until fairly recently.
In Vietnam the sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led a rebellion against the Han rule in 40 B.C. According to tradition they were joined by many women warriors and succeeded in establishing a short lived independence.
In South Asia and the Indian subcontinent the concept of woman warrior exists both in the mythos and in history. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and was described as "remarkable in beauty, cleverness, and perseverance. She was also considered the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders.
In Indonesia, Martha Christina Tiahahu joined a guerrilla war against the Dutch Colonial government as a teenager in 1817.
Lyudmila Pavilchencko was a Soviet sniper during World War II, and is regarded as the most successful female sniper in history.
This list is by no means exhaustive, however the examples set the precedent for female warriorship. In India which is considered the birthplace of martial arts by many, there are still many female warriors, specifically training in Kalari Payattu.
The word Kalari means practice ground in Malayalam. The traditional training ground of Kalari Payattu , a martial art of Kerala which is a state in south India, is always done inside the Kalari which literally translates to threshing floor or battlefield. Payattu means exercise in arms or practice.
Kalari playgrounds have, for centuries been used by both, men and women. Historically when men went off to fight battles, young women were often left behind to defend their villages and families. Women also trained in Kalari were able to resist invaders and bandits along the roads. Those who were from a higher caste also had access to a wide array of weapons at their disposal. Those from lower castes used ordinary utensils such as knives, anything and everything was considered a potential weapon. The lower castes also specialized in a more sophisticated from of empty handed combat.
Kalari also had a place of some importance in the education system in ancient Kerala. Today Kalari Payattu is a method of physical fitness divided into several schools- Thekkan and Vaddakan being two of the most known. It is a system that even today teaches young girls hand to hand combat.
So what has happened? Why are women viewed as inferior warriors by modern society. especially in schools that teach martial arts? It could be said that the media has played a role in this even though there are now more strong female protagonists. It could be that society is finally acknowledging women as warriors after a long time of denial. Whatever the case may be, there is a definitive shift in the perception of women as warriors taking place. I would argue that this is not a new trend but rather a return to a state that has always existed.
So I presented a problem, let me suggest a solution. I wont say its the only solution, but it is a solution I can actively employ. In our school, we are what I like to call gender blind. Our instructors look past gender when training a student. What is taken into account is ability, mastery of technique, determination to learn, and character. These traits are not gender specific. In our school we believe in cultivating warriors, not tournament champions. That is not a slight against tournament based schools, I think tournaments have their own place in the martial world. It is just not the focus of our school. This means we do not make exceptions based on gender and we expect our students commitment to be based on a warriors mindset, male or female. If more martial arts schools adopted this stance I think we would cause more of a shift in the perception of women as warriors.
Its possible you may be thinking-well that's a good sentiment, but pound for pound a man is stronger than a woman. Being stronger, the man will win in any conflict. I disagree, but let me share an analogy that stresses the importance of technique. My instructor, a Shihan- used to explain it this way. The explanation was usually in response to my question of outweighing him by 100 pounds and he was still able to easily deal with my attacks. He would say " If I take a bullet and throw it at you, at most it will annoy you and be ineffective. If I take that same bullet, put it in a gun-the same small piece of metal has devastating consequences if shot at you, and connects." This is why we stress technique over strength. Its not that I feel strength is overrated, its good to be strong (we certainly do enough conditioning to support this fact), but if I had to choose between strength and technique I would choose technique-always. It has been my experience that technique overcomes strength when they meet. This is why the females in our school are expected to be as formidable as the males.
I was recently shown this in my weekly jujitsu class. During class we working on a wrist lock and throw. The person I was paired with was a senior both in rank and in age ( she was easily ten years my senior). Whenever I am with a senior( in rank) I like to ask questions. In this case I presented the scenario that what if I just held my wrist in place could she still execute the lock and throw? She said "Well why don't we try and see if I can?" I proceeded to attack, she sidestepped, grabbed my wrist locked it and flung me easily. "I guess it does work" she said as she smiled at me while I lay on the floor. Just to make sure I understood the mechanics behind the exercise we worked on the same sequence for an hour. It was a literal, visceral (and jarring) lesson. When I did execute the sequence on her, it required no strength on my part but rather a shifting of the hips and unseating her balance. she reminded me that its not the strength that makes it effective-which is why so many people make mistakes, but rather proper technique. The technique is the foundation she kept telling me.
So what does this all mean? Well, if you are female and reading this post I encourage you to embrace the spirit of warriorship. If you are male and hold a different opinion than the one I shared here, that's fine. We are all entitled to our opinions, I would challenge you however to open your thoughts to the possibility that women are as capable as men in being warriors.
I recently heard an interaction between my wife and one of my daughters. The context was that my daughter had hurt her knee. My wife went over and quickly addressed the situation acknowledging that bumping your knee hurt, but then she said something truly profound. She looked at my daughter and said" We aren't going to let that stop us though, right? " My daughter nodded still in pain, but smiling.
"Do you know why not?" she asked my daughter. Together in a rising crescendo they both answered.
" Because we are Warriors!" My daughter ran off to continue playing.
The warriorship of women has a long and rich tradition in history. It is up to us to make sure that in continues into the next generation and beyond.
I would like to hear from both my male and female readers. What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree? Lets continue the conversation.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Everyday I sit for fifteen minutes. Everyday. You may be saying, well that's not a very long time, and you would be right. Fifteen minutes of your day is actually a very small amount of time. Or you may be saying ,well I sit everyday for hours, whats fifteen minutes?
Well let me clarify my definition of sitting. For fifteen minutes I intentionally sit in zazen (seated meditation) and still my mind. The running track we all have in our heads gets quieter. I connect to my breath on a deeper level and I just am. On some days (more often than not) those fifteen minutes feel like an hour. Bombarded by random thoughts that seem to be waiting for just this moment to assault me, I do my best not to hold on to any of them. Rather I am an observer as they come and go, always returning to the anchor, my breath. On some rare days (very rare days) the time seems to pass by in a compressed manner. Fifteen minutes seems like five and I marvel at the relativity of time in the context of perception.
So why should you sit? At the very least it gives you quiet time to yourself, to be with you. It highlights ( at least for me) the deeper level of connection we all share. When I sit I can "see" that I am part of a greater whole. Sitting also serves to focus your breathing. You will notice your breathing pattern withing the first minute. We have a tendency to breathe from our upper chest, shallow and rapid. When you take a moment to focus on your breath and move it downwards to your diaphragm, you fill your lungs, oxygenate your blood to higher degree which in turn sharpens your thought process.
Let me list some of the benefits of meditation, I wont go into detail since there are many sources of information on this:
The list is by no means exhaustive and yet if there were a pill or a drink that offered all of the above, people would get it in droves.When we find out all you have to do is just sit for a short time each day, it seems too good to be true.
When we train in our school like many other styles, we start and end our training with a moment of seated meditation. It is actually a moment of reflection and contemplation on our training path. It prepares us for the class that is about to begin, and at the end of class it allows us to reflect on the class that just took place, our performance and where we need to focus in our training. We prepare ourselves to leave the dojo and to face the world once again. While this sitting is essential to training, it is the sitting we do in our daily lives, the one we make part of our day that effects a change in us.
We have a tendency to live our lives at a breakneck pace. Our days are full of activities and we are constantly running from dawn until we go to sleep. In the course of all this activity (because many of us will say I don't have time) I invite you to allocate 5-15 minutes just to sit and be still. Some of us will find this very easy. Most will find it difficult at first. What do you mean be still? Do you mean not do anything? Does this mean I cant go online, get on the phone, send a text, read my email and call someone? If that sounds like your idea of not doing anything this will be a real challenge for you.
For 5-15 minutes just sit and focus on your breathing. Period.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes, I will be curious to hear the stories. Leave me a comment.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Some time ago a gentleman entered the dojo to inquire about classes. This is not the first time this has happened and is quite a frequent occurrence. In this instance after some discussion about the class schedule, I invited the gentleman to come try a class to see if it was the type of training he wanted to pursue. I usually get a number of responses at this point.
They range from- "OK I'll be back on x day to try the class." to "Can I just sign up now?' However this time was different. He informed me that he was a black belt in another style and could he just wear his black belt to class. For a moment I thought he wasn't serious, I realized he was. So after some thought (about 5 seconds worth), I politely said that he could not wear his black belt from a completely unrelated style to a new school where he would not know the techniques. His demeanor changed instantly and he proceeded to tell me that he had trained for many years. My response was that he should endeavor to find a school in the style he had devoted so much time to and that if he needed help in that, I would be willing to offer it. He declined (not so politely) and left the school.
This incident stayed with me for several reasons. Initially I was dumbfounded that someone would even suggest they wear their black belt as a student just beginning in a new school. It spoke of an ego of immense proportions. It was (in my opinion) very disrespectful. After some more thought I realized that the reason this situation gave me pause was the lack of humility. Humility is actually a very important component in our training and life. In order to undergo years of repetitive, physically and mentally demanding training, you need to be humble. In our school some of the instructors are younger than the students, those students need to have humility in order to learn from these instructors.
I have found that the only way to progress is to not only know when you don't know something, but to be able to admit that you don't know and to seek out someone who does and learn from them. To be able to do this you must be humble. To acknowledge you lack skill or ability or knowledge in an area and then to seek out a mentor or instructor requires humility. The other side of that equation is that you must accept the instruction from said instructor/mentor. Its not enough to just be there you have to be teachable. I recently had a young student in a class embody this. When I would state a technique she would say I know ( she is 8 years old). So I would say " Great! Show me." Then she would proceed to show me that she didn't know. We all go through this phase as children. The key is not to remain in this phase as adults (or children).
A part of the process in our school when you achieve a high enough rank, is to wear a white belt again. Usually as part of the process of becoming a black belt, you wear a white belt anywhere from 3-6 months. I went through this process several times and it serves a quite a reality check. You can examine if most of your identity is wrapped around your waist or if you embody what you are training regardless of the color of your belt.
This lesson of humility that is learned in the dojo is meant to be practiced outside the dojo as well ( as most of the life lessons are). Leaders, those that are successful almost always possess this quality. If you look at some of the most successful companies in the world, many of them have leaders who self effacing, who do not seek the recognition, who lift others up before themselves.
We often confuse humility with being timid. Humility is not having an attitude self-debasement or self denigration, rather humility is maintaining pride about who we are, our worth and accomplishments but without arrogance. It is the opposite of hubris- the excessive and arrogant pride which leads some to believe that they are infallible. Thoughts that usually occur right before a downfall of epic proportions. Humility is the quiet confidence that has no need of boasting, it is about being content to let others discover the depth of our talent or ability. It is a lack of arrogance but not a lack of aggressiveness in the pursuit of excellence and achievement.
There are several indicators of humility,here are a few:
How do you treat people who may not offer you anything in return?
Do you find it easy to say " You are right" ?
Can you easily ask input from others or do you have ALL the answers?
When working with others do you need to have all the recognition or can you work from the background allowing others to be receive the credit?
Can you see every situation as a teaching moment, even if the teacher is a child?
I am certain there are more indicators of humility in our lives, these are just some questions to get you started.
I hope they set you on a more humble journey through life and your practice.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
I have taken a short hiatus because I was in contemplation of what my practice meant to me. You may be wondering why after almost three decades of training would I need to contemplate my practice. Am I not certain of what I have devoted so much time to? Is something still unclear? Aside from the teachings-all of which gently ( and not so gently) coax me to live in the eternal now and not to be concerned with past or future. This presents me with a unique position. Even though I strive to be in the present, am I not the sum of my past history especially in regard to my training on the martial path?
It was this train of thought that led me to pursue the question of what my practice meant to me. What did it mean to go deeper in my practice, was it even possible to go deeper? Were there any depths to be plumbed? I am a firm believer in continually studying especially when it comes to being on a martial path. I have said it before-we are on a summit-less mountain, therefore we never arrive, we never achieve complete mastery. There is always more polishing to be done, always.
With this in mind I began to delve into what may considered reaching a pinnacle in any given path. I wondered if it was becoming a tournament champion. While I no longer participate in tournaments, I do not disparage them. They serve a purpose, albeit a narrow one, in my perspective. Many practitioners feel fulfilled competing in tournaments, for me personally it has always felt hollow. I also feel that if you need external validation of who you are as a martial practitioner then ego may be at work, which really has no place on the path.
What about becoming an accomplished fighter? When you examine this aspect of a martial path, especially in our current times it is possible that the martial aspect of what we do can get overlooked or ignored completely. Certainly it is useful to have the skills of fighting, however if you are in a situation that has degenerated to physical violence it is my belief that you have failed in your training in that moment. Fighting very rarely solves a situation and usually exacerbates it. Real fighting that occurs in a street setting, where there are no rules is a chaotic, messy, more often than not bloody thing. Its also very very fast. Faster than most who have been dojo trained are prepared to deal with.
So then what does it mean to go deeper? What is it that must be pursued to facilitate this depth? How do I accomplish attaining a deeper level to my practice, if its even possible? Well I can only answer for my path even though I put these thoughts here for you to view and spur you to consider your path and practice. We each walk our own path. I will tell you what I have learned for my practice.
The first paradox that I encountered was that in order to go deeper in my practice I had to completely forget about myself. On occasion we get so wrapped up in ourselves that we forget that our purpose is to give of ourselves, our time, our knowledge. The more you give of you, the more there will be to give. When you are doing these things, you have little time to contemplate yourself.
I next discovered that kata and its practice is the foundation to excellence, notice I didn't say perfection.. I know this may sound like an oversimplification and yet it really is that simple. Practice your kata, embody them, meditate with them. They are the underpinning of everything your art is comprised of.
Once I saw that- the next thing I saw was that I needed to be compassionate and gentle. When I was younger I would scoff and those who would advise me to be gentle, not understanding the wisdom in those words. I felt that if I was strong I needed to demonstrate it and make sure it was known I was strong. Ego in its highest form. It took me many years and many difficult lessons to learn that only those who are truly strong can be gentle. Having compassion showed me to view life from others eyes. Putting myself in the position of others allowed me the perspective to see with empathy.
I am still learning everyday. Each day I have the choice as to how I will be. It is a choice despite what many will say. We choose to be the way we are. We choose our responses to life. Life simply is. We add or subtract the meaning.
What will your choice be each day?
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
The primary role of blocking is not mere parrying, it goes beyond that. In fact when one executes a real block it marks the beginning of a counter attack. If properly done the block nullifies the opponents attack for a short span of time that might be very short, but it is long enough for a counter attack." - Kenji Tokitsu Author of The Inner Art of Karate.
In martial arts the root term uke is usually referred to the person receiving a technique. In karate it ukete, in kendo ukedachi. In judo it is uke and in grappling arts it can be referred to as ukemi. Each of these variations convey the same general idea of receiving a technique. It is not an exercise of force being met with force but rather a redirection of force.
Once this concept is understood it completely transforms your training. You are not training to see if you can shatter an incoming technique, but rather flow with the energy that is being directed towards you, using it to your advantage. You are not just a passive participant in the exchange. Together with this concept of uke a student must learn what maai (distance) means and the importance of timing. In order to redirect incoming force your timing must be impeccable, this is only learned with constant practice.
When advanced students engage in kumite or the exchange of techniques, this ability can be seen. It seems effortless and it usually is. The difference is stark when a less experienced student interacts with an advanced student. The junior can be seen to expend large amounts of energy and use much effort, while the senior appears to be using very little to none.
Initially these techniques are taught as "blocks" because it is easier to understand. However, as the student progresses they will hear comments like "there are no blocks" or "that technique is not really a block." If the student continues training they will discover that the techniques they have been practicing for years have different applications, that a parry is actually the inception of a counter, not and end in and of itself.
This transformation takes time. It takes time to learn the cadence and rhythm of dynamic interactions. It also takes time to become proficient at understanding the concept of distance and how it pertains to an effective uke. The benefit is that if the student perseveres long enough all of these techniques begin to unfold in their complexity, providing a deeper understanding of what it means when it is said "there is no first strike".
A vivid example of the power of "blocks" was Mas Oyama , the founder of Kyokushin karate. It was recorded on several occasions that those who would engage in kumite with him did so at their peril. His "blocks" were so powerful that he did not need to punch and kick.
It is a level of technique we can all aspire to.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
I took a brief break from blogging to catch up on my reading and writing. I am in the middle of rereading Scaling Force by Miller and Kane. This was part of series for me that started with The Little Black Book of Violence, by Lawrence Kane and Kris Wilder. Followed by The gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker and culminated by Scaling Force. I recommend getting all of the above and studying them, repeatedly.
Why reread these books and books like them?
First a little background: I was born and raised in the streets of the South Bronx in NYC. In the process of my growing, despite having a very strong parental influence I knew what it was to join and be in gangs. In my life I faced pipes, clubs, bottles, knives and the barrel of a gun several times. I know what it is to be in a fight one on one, the chaos of two armed mobs fighting and being in a situation when you are outnumbered. I don't share this as a badge of honor, it was and is a stupid path to pursue, grounded in a false sense of pride and ego that usually sends you to an early grave. I share it because it gives me insight into what the differences are between sparring and combat. I wont go into the military aspects of combat, because I have never been in the military (although I have family who have served with distinction) and so I cant give that perspective. I want to approach this from the perspective of street violence. Which is what we are most likely to encounter.
In our school we have the poster you see above hanging on one of our walls. In fact I have seen the same wall chart of striking points in several schools. Its so pervasive that it has become part of the scenery, no one really asks about it and its just accepted as part of the decor. If you stop a moment and take time to examine the wall chart you will see that the points it shows can be quite devastating if struck with force. The points are not often taught in a regular class even though most of them are contained in the kata in most styles of the striking arts.
This is the case with sparring and fighting. Most schools teaching fighting are actually teaching sparring, there is protective gear and points and places on the body that are off-limits. All of this is good and has its place. I like to send students home intact without visits to the hospital or broken and dislocated parts. The danger lies when this is all that is taught, or is taught as combat. At some point the student must be taken to the other side of fighting, which is combat. There are no rules in combat. No one is going to wait while you don gear and get yourself mentally ready. No one is going to step in and break you up if it gets too rough. There are no rounds and no points. When you are in this context survival is the goal.
This is not to discount the legality of this type of encounter. There are and can be severe legal penalties for causing damage and breaking a person when that level of force was not required. Which is why awareness is paramount. The concept of scaling force is also indispensable to meeting violence with the appropriate response. I always tell my students- if you have to get physical, you weren't paying attention and your defense failed. The legal ramifications are so involved that a book would be required to do the subject justice, see the above titles for a good start.
So how do we reconcile these concepts of sparring and combat? Sparring is a tool to introduce concepts and principles. It is a safe, controlled environment that allows for mistakes. It is a laboratory of sorts, where you can explore and ask and try out techniques. The stakes, if there are any are low.
Combat / Fighting is almost the exact opposite of sparring. It is not safe or controlled. It is chaotic, fast, sloppy and messy. It sends your body through a hormone cocktail that you will not be able to control. Mistakes usually result in serious bodily harm or death-the stakes are high, sometimes the highest.
If you find yourself in a school or self defense class that does not make this distinction, do your research ask questions of the instructor and find out the strategies and tactics of the style you are currently engaged in and how it would deal with violence in an uncontrolled situation.
I recently had to revise the way one of my students was sparring. The method she was learning was a formal sparring method, which she was struggling with. When that was changed to a no rules type of fighting, this works on the street method, her ability and understanding shifted and improved considerably.
Both have their place in training and your life, just remember to know the difference between the two.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body,
This blog is a continuation of the previous one about respect, if you haven't read that one, please do, it will give you insight into this one.
In our school we promote slowly. Its not because we don't like to promote, but rather because we as a school believe in focusing on foundations and not rushing to a rank. After all what would you be rushing to? There is no "end" to rush to. To give you an idea of how slowly we promote-I have currently held my rank since 1999. It never entered my mind to consider my next rank (OK, it has entered it once or twice) but never to actively pursue it. Its not my place to award myself rank, just like I didn't award myself the rank I now have. So after much thinking I started wondering what was the purpose of rank?
The system of ranking isn't very old compared to martial arts. The first shodans Shiro Saigo and Tsunejiro Tomita were recognized in 1883 by Kano. Even then there weren't obi or belts. The actual belts didn't arrive until much later. The first delineation was made in 1886 when Kano had his seniors(yudansha) wear black obi over their kimonos. In 1907 Kano introduced the judogi and the obi we see today, yet even then there were only black belts and white belts. The first karateka awarded the shodan rank by Funakoshi were Tokuda, Otsuka, Akiba, Shimizu, Hirose, Gima, and Kasuya on April 10th 1924.
The hierarchy of belts was established to represent a progression of learning with a syllabus and a corresponding grade indicating an individual's level of proficiency. Achieving shodan is like graduating from high school or university- It indicates that you have achieved a fundamental level of skill, learned the basic techniques and can execute them in a functional way. It means you are now prepared to pursue your art on a more serious and advanced level.
So rank at its inception was just a means to indicate how much you knew and that at a certain level you should be able to execute certain techniques. It can also mean that I have been on the path longer than you have, but remember that can be deceptive since not everyone progresses at the same rate.
So if that is all rank is for, a shorthand for instructors to determine the level of skill of the students, when did it become a situation of being a black belt is better than being brown belt or any other rank?
I think the moment ego enters into the equation, that is when the comparisons start to occur. This is a danger that every school and student must be wary of. The moment I begin to believe that I am better than another student simply by the fact of my rank, I have stopped growing and learning. I become a danger to myself and my fellow students as arrogance becomes part of my practice.
Another point worth mentioning is- Is my rank static? If I decide to neglect my practice of the material that is required of my rank, to the degree that I no longer can execute the techniques required of me with proficiency, should I still be considered the rank I am? That is a topic for another post.
So the belt, sash, rope you are wearing -while you have worked for it, sweat for it and in some cases bled for it, remember its just a piece of material that keeps your uniform closed. Its not the rank that makes the person, but rather the person that makes the rank.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Feeling deep admiration for someone or something, elicited by their abilities, qualities or achievements. That is the definition of respect. The submission or courteous yielding to the opinion,wishes or judgement of another is deference. This is the attitude expected in most dojos. My question is should it be automatic?
Within the context of your chosen path should you automatically respect those who have come before you or should you scrutinize who they are, not only as martial artists but as people? If I have more stripes on my belt does that mean that I should expect deference from those who may not have as many stripes? It is, I admit a complex situation and yet also simple. It is complex because there are several variables at play. It is simple because at its essence it comes down to- respect must be earned, in and outside of the dojo.
Granted, in each dojo there are rules of etiquette that should be followed, rules that were established to promote order and to keep us present to the fact that we are embarking upon the study of an art that can and is dangerous. I am not advocating disregarding these norms of etiquette. However it has been my experience that within the higher ranks the respect and deference seems to flow one way. The seniors may expect this behavior towards them, but it is rarely demonstrated by the seniors towards their juniors. I recently witnessed this behavior in action.
A shodan was having a conversation with a fourth degree instructor when another fourth degree student interrupted the conversation stating that he needed to discuss something of import with said fourth degree. This incident made me think, how would have that fourth degree reacted if the roles were reversed? If the two fourth degrees were in conversation and the first degree needed to speak with one of them would an interruption be tolerated? My other thought was, that by stating that he needed to discuss something important he was implying that whatever was being discussed currently was not as important as what he had to say.
Now this may or may not have been true, but the act denotes a certain level of arrogance. Where is the respect? Does a first degree merit less respect than a fourth degree? Does a white belt deserve less respect than a black belt? When we realize that ranks and stripes are all artificial ( a statement which I'm sure will throw many high level sensei, shihan, kyoshi and hanshis into an uproar) and that what matters is the person wearing the belt, not the belt itself, then we will be able to relate to each other as fellow students along the way.
When seniors treat juniors with respect regardless of rank, then arrogance cannot have a foothold in the dojo or their life. This is when respect becomes mutual, deference natural and humility a way of life.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
We live in a culture of strength. Everywhere you look strength is lauded. Its in our societal thought space "Only the strong survive" is an unspoken accepted "truth." In this month of resolutions most of the ads are geared towards get fit, get healthy. Underlying that is... be strong. I am reminded of the ads in the comic books when I was younger. Where Charles Atlas would help the 98lb weakling become a paragon of strength. No I'm not really that old but I used to collect very old comics.
We have a tendency to shun weakness, real or perceived.
So the real question is- What is strength? Webster states that strength is:the quality or state of being strong, capacity for exertion or endurance, the power to resist force, power of resisting attack. Is this really strength?
In the dojo there are several manifestations of strength. The strength to crank out numerous push ups is one. The strength to hit the makiwara over and over never wavering is another. How about the strength to come to class when every cell in your body is telling you to stay home? The strength to face that senior who is going to hit you. The strength to face that junior you have to hit? The strength to drill kata over and over until it is hardwired into your body and you are physically and mentally exhausted. These may not be the socially accepted definitions of strength but they are examples of it nonetheless.
You see its not all about physical strength. What happens when you become older and physical strength is no longer a factor? Or when you are the senior (in age and rank) facing that 18-20 yr old at the height of his physical prowess? It is as these times that we must have the strength not to use strength. For while being physically strong is certainly an asset, In training it is not the goal but rather a side effect.
The strength that is required in the dojo is more holistic. You need to be strong in every aspect of your being not just physically. I have faced behemoths that towered over me and handled them with relative ease because of their dependency on physical strength. Likewise I have faced my Shihan who weighs in at about 128 lbs and stands an entire five feet two inches and have been dismantled by him on a regular basis. So its not the physicality of strength. Mental fortitude is as important as physical strength. Precise techniques give that physical strength a vehicle for expression. Spiritual strength underlies it all.
So the next time you view someone as weak, take a moment to truly evaluate if that person is weak. If it is in the dojo it may be that they are so strong that they appear to be weak, for only the truly strong can be gentle.
Outside the dojo the same applies. Those who are truly strong may not appear to be so at first glance- look again.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
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