Monday, December 27, 2010

How Much?

      How frequently one should train is a question with which I have often been faced.  Rarely does anyone like the answer they get but after several decades of martial arts training and teaching I feel that I have a firm grasp of what works and what doesn't.
     The first consideration must be this:  What do you expect to get out of training?  That is, why are you training?  It's surprising how many people who are involved (at various levels) in a given martial art cannot answer this question with any real measure of confidence.
    The second consideration is: What sacrifices are you willing to make to achieve the answer to the first consideration?  What kinds of hardships are you willing to endure?
     In our modern society, people enjoy having various hobbies.  Bowling, softball, golf, computer games...there are LOTS of hobbies out there.  So naturally, people often tend to regard and practice martial arts as a hobby.  This is fine as long as they realize that they will never acquire any measure of real skill.  After all, if you like to play the piano as a hobby, you may be able to entertain your friends but face'll never become a concert pianist.
     Other people look to martial arts as a way of keeping physically, and even mentally, fit.  Some want to "get in touch with their inner child" or some such business while others aspire to learn spiritual truths. 
    And other students desire to learn effective self-defense, but they want it now...kind of like microwaving a TV dinner.  Instant self-defense.  Overnight Bruce Lee.
     The point is that if you want to learn real martial arts as opposed to some "quickie" form of self-defense or an exotic method of losing weight or reducing stress, you have to understand that it can't be done quickly or easily.  It takes a great deal of effort and time, and these things will necessarily involve sacrifice and hardship.
     I compare martial arts training to developing flexibility or body-building...or even playing the piano.  If you attend class only once a week, your progress will be very, very slow...if you make any at all.  The ONLY way this can work is if you include at least 2-3 additional practice sessions on your own during the week.  If you do this, and you practice vigorously and seriously, you can make progress.  But if you ONLY practice one day a week, you may as well give realize that you're going nowhere fast.
     After all, if you were training to be a body-builder, you couldn't possibly do it if you lifted only once a week.  You'd very likely injure yourself.  You can't bench press, say, 100 lbs. one week, and then go to a heavier weight the next week unless you build up to it gradually.  That's the way the human body works!
     In stretching, you should stretch heavily only every other day and do light stretches in between - six days a week!  The body needs the "light" days to recover and rebuild from the "heavy" days.  But if you engage in only one "heavy" day a week, how can you possibly get anywhere?
     To learn to play the piano, you learn a basic exercise first.  If you practice it only one day a week, what are the odds of ever being able to play the piano with any measure of skill?  Zip.
     Two classes weekly is a MINIMUM for acquiring skill.  Even so, you must still practice on your own at least 2-3 days per week (outside of class).  If you do this, you can make good progress.  Otherwise, development of real skill will be considerably slowed.
     Three classes per week is ideal, but it may not be possible for your teacher to provide this many classes due to restrictions on the facility, and so forth.  Even so, you should practice on your own at least twice per week outside of class.
    Remember that class time is time for the teacher to present new material and to polish what you've already learned.  If you don't practice on your own, he's continually trying to polish the same techniques over and over because you're simply not ready to learn anything new.  If you tried, you might hurt yourself.
     Even someone who only wants to shed some extra weight knows that it is impossible if they exercise only once weekly or twice monthly.
     An experienced instructor can easily tell if you've been practicing on your own or not.  My teacher would have thrown me out of class if I had not practiced on my own because he felt that one should approach martial arts (training) with the utmost seriousness.  It wasn't a hobby, a game, a way of losing weight, or learning some nifty self-defense tricks.  He saw it as a lifestyle and he lived what he taught.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Listening To The Past

Most martial arts neophytes, and even a good number of advanced practitioners, tend to see martial arts primarily as a sophisticated means of kicking butt.  And certainly, we do put in a lot of time and energy training ourselves to become highly proficient in various types of combat.  But there's much more to martial arts than meets the eye (or butt) and it's important to stop every once in a while and listen to the voices of the past.  If we listen closely and reflect upon what they tell us, we can begin to understand what martial arts are really about...

"To achieve victory in a hundred battles is not the highest skill.  To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill."
                                      -Sun Tzu "The Art of War"

     The most efficient and safest way of winning is to avoid fighting.  Pay attention to what is happening around you and if violence seems imminent, leave.  Avoid frequenting places where violence is common.  
     Captain Kangaroo taught us a great lesson in how to avoid violence and diffuse hostile situations; he taught us "Please" and "Thank You."  Really.  You'd be surprised at the number of potentially violent situations that can be mitigated with little more than a calm, confident demeanor and these two phrases.  Avoiding conflict is the highest skill.  Confronting an opponent and winning without resorting to violence is the next highest level.  Winning through physical violence is the lowest level of skill.
"Mental bearing (calmness), not skill, is the sign of a matured samurai.  A samurai, therefore, should neither be pompous nor arrogant."
                                    -Tsukahara Bokuden

     One of the easiest places to find people who have puffed themselves up with self-importance and pomposity is a martial arts school (or tournament).  Those who possess genuine skill are usually very quiet.

"The obstacle is the path."
               -Zen Proverb

     We often talk about following the path of the martial arts and realizing that the obstacle we encounter have actually been placed there by us.  But consider...the path itself is the obstacle.

"Don't hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting, but never hit soft."
                                 -Theodore Roosevelt

     God bless Teddy Roosevelt!
"Karate begins and ends with courtesy."
                               -Gichin Funakoshi ("Father of Japanese Karate")

     Of course, this doesn't apply only to karate.  It applies to all martial disciplines.  I once had a young man approach me and ask what he would learn first if he enrolled in my school.  I replied, "courtesy."  He was somewhat taken aback at this response but I explained that if he could not or would not learn courtesy, he could never learn martial arts.  One of the great secrets of martial arts lies within the simple concept of courtesy.

"Maximum efficiency with minimum effort." (One of the fundamental principles of judo)
                              -Dr. Jigaro Kano (founder of Judo)

     Too many of us strive to achieve maximum efficiency through maximum effort, using strength against strength and huffing and puffing and pushing and pulling.  Let the opponent give you the victory.  You will not get it by yourself.

"A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind."
                             -Morihei Uyeshiba (founder of Aikido)

     The outside is reflective of the inside.  Moreover, the outside affects the inside.  Sloppy posture or stance begets a sloppy, loose mind...A sharp posture is indicative of a sharp but relaxed mind.

"From white to black belt, you shape the tool.  After black belt, you learn how to use it."

     Very profound.  

"Martial arts are about discipline and the first discipline is showing up for class."
                           -Mr. Carter (A karate teacher)

     Indeed.  Truer words were never spoken.  But there's more to this statement than you might think.  Consider it.

"Knife sharpens on stone.  Man sharpens on man."


"Iron is full of impurities that weaken it.  Through forging it becomes steel and is transformed into a razor-sharp sword.  Human beings develop in the same way."
                        -Morihei Uyeshiba


"Before and after practice or engaging in a match, participants bow to each other.  Bowing is an expression of gratitude and respect.  In effect, you are thanking your opponent for giving you the opportunity to improve your technique."
                       -Jigaro Kano

     Bow.  Always.  And mean it.  There's nothing worse than an empty bow.


"Karate ni sente nashi."
                      -Gichin Funakoshi

     This is often translated as, "In karate, one does not make the first attack."  However, I believe a more correct rendering is, "In karate, one does not make the first move."  There's a considerable difference between the two.
     In the former, the emphasis would seem to be on morality, emphasizing that one should use karate only as a means of defense rather than aggression.  However, I believe that this quote has more to do with tactics.  Whenever a person moves he creates a moment of "kyo" (deficiency, vulnerability), which a skillful opponent may exploit and use to his advantage.  Therefore, it is best to let the opponent move and thereby weaken his defensive posture.

"Kamae is for beginners. Shizentai is for advanced pupils."
                   -Morihei Uyeshiba

     "Kamae" is a formal posture or fighting stance.  "Shizentai" refers to natural standing postures.  The master is saying that beginners feel that they begin from a fighting posture but a truly skilled practitioner can, after much training, present his techniques from any (natural) position.
"Martial arts are intended to prolong life, not shorten it."
                  -Morihei Uyeshiba

     Always remember this.  Think on it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Riding the Crane and Preparing For Class

     A couple of days ago I was reflecting on how classes were conducted in my old Omaha school and I stopped and considered how classes typically began.  Everyone was called to line up (by the beating of two sticks) and then to sit in the formal position known as ho-zo (in Japanese, seiza).  This position is actually on the knees with the feet resting under the buttocks.  The translation of "ho-zo" means literally, "crane-riding" since the ancients thought that this was how one would sit if one ever climbed onto the back of a giant crane and soared into the heavens.  Never having insomuch as even seen a giant crane, I always suspected that this uncomfortable position was actually created by someone who hated human beings and worked lots of overtime to find the most painful positions for them to stand or sit.
     It has fallen into disuse in China; the chair was put into widespread use there a long time ago but the Japanese held onto this formal sitting posture for many generations, largely due to their disdain of things like chairs and other forms of furniture which were raised high off the floor.  Nowadays, most Japanese no longer utilize this form of sitting - it takes a long time to get used to it - but it is still frequently seen in their martial arts schools.
     Many Japanese martial arts schools have students begin in this position, practice a basic breathing exercise, and perform a formal kneeling bow prior to training.  In the old Omaha school, students began in this position and calmed their spirits with a breathing technique before standing up and bowing from that position.  I remember back when I was a student and my teacher(s) said that we should meditate prior to training.  This always confused me.  One cannot really meditate after sitting for only a minute or so, which is about how long we sat.  Over the years, I changed the function from "meditation" to calming one's spirit via breathing techniques, getting "centered", and preparing the mind and spirit for class/training.
     I was recently poring over some old martial arts writing and came across some material from a very famous (now deceased) teacher.  He said that beginning the class with seiza was important because it naturally develops and enhances a spirit of etiquette which, in turn, has a strong impact on how the student approaches training.  It is, he said, a civilized and formal form of sitting/holding oneself and a source of natural etiquette which is imprinted on people's minds. 
     Because proper etiquette is central to correct training, he felt that this form of sitting before class is essential.  "An upright body is related to an upright mind," he said as he explained the importance of having the highest regard and respect for the individual student.   Each student must regard his/her peers (as well as the teacher AND him/her self) with the highest respect if he/she is going to really achieve anything in training.  Each student must maintain a high regard for what his/her teaches as well as his/her own individual training.  It was felt that beginning class in the formal seated position helped students (and teachers) approach the subject of what is about to be taught as well as preparing themselves for class.
     I have to agree.  Certainly, it's not always possible to begin class in this way (when training outdoors, for example), but it's probably best to begin class in this manner whenever possible. 
     I used to study things like how students pre-class attitudes affected their individual training as well as the atmosphere of the whole class, and how this could be altered for the better.  There were a handful of students who, due to injuries or handicaps, were unable to assume the formal sitting position at the beginning of class...but there were FAR MORE who were just plain uncomfortable in it (and often claimed, "I CAN'T sit like this!").  Being uncomfortable and being physically unable to sit in this way are two different things.  And although we giggle as we recall those days, there's a serious side to it -
     Remember the guys (and girls) who NEVER tried to master this position?  Remember how they ALWAYS complained about it and how they'd "fake" it by finding some way around it (they'd sit in a posture similar to, but not exactly like, the correct position).  None of them made it into the senior grades.  Why?  Well, there are many reasons but you can bet that ONE of them involved the unwillingness to endure anything which was uncomfortable.  Another things was usually that instead of doing a movement correctly (which can be uncomfortable at first), they'd "fake" it by doing something similar to it (which was more comfortable)...they didn't learn how to do things correctly because they were overly-concerned with their own personal comfort.  They didn't have the determination, the spirit to learn how to do martial arts correctly.
     The manner in which the students and teachers conduct themselves at the beginning of class directly impacts the spirit of the class, how the training is conducted and material is presented, and how efficiently the students absorb it.  It seems like a small, insignificant thing but it is really very important.  If the beginning of the class is very informal, students will not take training seriously (even if they think they do).  This brings up an interesting point - just when does class begin?
     Class begins when everyone lines up.  This should not be done too casually.  It's an important part of the training/learning process.  If the approach to training is formal and serious, so will the training be and the students will get a lot more out of it.  It's pretty much impossible to begin a class in a casual manner and then try to get serious at some point during the class.  It just doesn't work.  Additionally, students actually expect some measure of formality in a martial arts class; a class which maintains a fairly formal structure actually suffers fewer dropouts than those which apply a more "casual" approach.  At least that's been my observation after more than 40 years of teaching.
     I remember a small aikido class I attended back in college.  The instructor carried a small photo of the founder, Morihei Uyeshiba, into the class and set it up at the front of the room.  At the beginning of class, students and teacher exchanged formal kneeling bows and then bowed to the photo to pay respects to the founder.  Old-fashioned Chinese schools used to do something similar except that in lieu of a photo, they had the founder's name written on red paper at a small shrine.  Sometimes the names of the heads of the system (if the system was very old) were also included.  In China, a name on red paper or a person's name written in red ink indicates that that person is deceased - I once signed a traveler's check in China with a red-ink pen and they refused to take it because they thought that I would be putting a curse on myself....but that's another story.
     This kind of formal structure prior to class adds to the atmosphere, the spirit of the class and the overall approach to training.  It may seem rather foreign to us (as Americans) and even pointless, but there's a good reason for it.
     When I practice at home, I usually begin by sitting in this way and preparing my mind and spirit for training.  It may seem pointless since there's no one here to instruct me and I'm not leading a class, but it impacts my ATTITUDE. 
     Traditional Japanese iaido (art of drawing and cutting with a live blade) is practiced mostly from this position.  When I train at home, I do it as it should be done unless I'm outside on wet, soggy ground.  In fact, in an iaido class, the beginning of class is VERY formal and every little thing has to be done just so - from how you enter the training area to how you sit, how and where you place the sword, how you insert the sheathed sword into your belt (obi) and so on.  Believe it or not, I always begin my own private training in this way - because it has an effect on the SPIRIT of the whole session and the way in which I regard MYSELF as well as my sword.
     I remember when I attended elementary and high school, there were strict dress codes which were enforced by all of the teachers and staff.  Woe to anyone who violated the code and, being just a little rebellious, we loathed it.  But it had value.  Eventually, such codes were largely eschewed because parents complained about them and "student's rights."  So now we have kids attending school in clothes that look like they've been on the losing end of an Asian land war...and their attitudes match their clothing.  You rarely find kids who attend school in nice, conservative clothing getting low grades.
     As outside, so inside.
     We used to end class in the same way - by sitting and calming the spirit and preparing to go back out into the world, and evaluating what had been taught and learned.  Everyone had a chance to calm down and center him/her self before bowing and leaving.  It made a very real difference - not only in how students approached training and how well they absorbed the material and performed, but in numbers of students who regularly attended training.