The 24th Annual IKKF Training, which took place over this past weekend, is a gathering of students and teachers who seek to share their martial arts and help each other learn. The event is hosted by C. Bruce Heilman, founder of the IKKF, and his wife Ann-Marie Heilman.
The thing that makes this training a bit unusual is the attendance of very high quality guest instructors from varying arts. Individuals such as Patrick McCarthy, Chuck Merriman, George Alexander, and Forrest Morgan have all been kind enough to teach in the past, and this year was no exception as Aikijujutsu instructor Miguel Ibarra and Shobayashi Shorin Ryu Instructor Bill Hayes led seminars. In addition to special guests, most of the highest ranking members of Okinawa Kenpo made the trip down.
All in all, there is never a shortage of things to see, try, and learn. But one thing that really struck me this year was the ability of these instructors to motivate and inspire.
Learning martial arts is an odd cycle. There are periods of rapid progression, and periods of stagnation. There are times when you feel like you’ve got a good bead on things…and times when you feel lost at sea. This year, my instructors provided me with all of those feelings put together!
Kind of a weird statement…I know. But here is what I mean –
I was able to approach and discuss concepts, techniques, and theory with each instructor. They answered questions thoroughly, and patiently entertained follow-ups. They also challenged me to think outside of my own box and use core concepts that can apply universally. Furthermore, they talked and joked around with me as if I were a colleague instead of a raw student (here’s a hint – I’m much the latter).
Conversely – during their seminars, the guest instructors and IKKF Kyoshi demonstrated flashes of skill that made me set back on my heels. The speed, effectiveness, creativity, and knowledge they displayed is far beyond where I’m at. Watching it forced me to peer higher up the mountain, only to see the tip hidden by fog.
The odd thing is…both factors we’re equally valuable! Personal improvement is always a good thing, but seeing why the martial arts should be a lifelong endeavor is just as important. The term sensei literally translates to ‘one who has gone before’, or ‘one who is just ahead’, and routinely coming into contact with these sensei really helps keep me motivated to traverse the rocky path that is the martial arts.
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Check out this brief movie trailer (2 mins long) –
Oook. So what do we have here, exactly? Very slick production. Really, really, ridiculously good looking people. A plot that was likely whipped up over the course of a business brunch. Timely soundtrack. Sensationalized techniques and fight scenes that loosely resemble a popular style (in this case, MMA). Thin excuse to fight, training sequences, cheesy love interest, final fight.
Starting to sound familiar? It should. This is a trap many different kinds of martial arts have fallen into. Let’s warp back in time.
In the late 40’s, early 50’s, karate was hitting U.S. shores for the first time. Individuals like Robert Trias brought it back from military exploits overseas. The abilities of Trias Sensei and other visiting masters impressed onlookers, even though it was still an underground style. By the 70’s, karate was hitting the U.S. on a consistent basis and began developing a healthy reputation.
Concurrently, kung fu had begun its journey west roughly around the same time. Much like karate, it began spreading in the late 40s, early 50s, but didn’t truly pick up steam until the 70s. That’s when American cinema took notice of these blossoming martial arts. They saw the respect these styles commanded and the amount of money Americans were shelling out to train with instructors (both legitimately qualified, and otherwise). With this revelation in hand, the karate and kung fu movie creation machine began churning.
Dozens upon dozens of hong kong flicks were brought over, sensationalizing the exploits of wushu masters. Characters were given the ability to fly, project ki, and execute lethal death blows. Karate masters were portrayed as men of unfathomable strength, able to handle droves of opponents.
This all came to a head as Americans found stars upon which they could base their martial arts universe. Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris were among the first. Later came Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and Jackie Chan.
Often found fueling the movies of these stars (And others) were plots of underdog training, revenge, redemption, and tournament style combat.
Now…like a lot of folks…I love these movies! Absolutely. A lot of these men are/were fantastic martial artists and the movies are very entertaining. But if we take an honest look at what happened to karate and kung fu after the flooding of the movie market, we can see a definite trend. Teachers started popping up all over the place, claiming they knew karate simply because they watched bloodsport 50 times. Other teachers claimed they could perform inhuman acts of strength, such as ripping off strips of human flesh. Still others held on to the belief that they could perform no touch knockouts simply through chi blasts.
These wayward martial artists were not following in the footsteps of traditional Okinawans, I can promise you that.
Beyond conning people for money, these trends also served to deteriorate the reputations of karate and kung fu. After all, if you meet 4 hokie karateka, you’ll probably expect the 5th to be hokie too.
This historical detour brings us back to our current topic – Never Back Down. The development of MMA has been historically similar to that of previous styles in that it began underground, grew a reputation of toughness, and expanded out globally in order to prove its effectiveness.
Here, in the form of Never Back Down, we are seeing the next phase. Hollywood has spotted a very profitable martial art and is succeeding in cashing in on it. They have sensationalized the style just like has occurred in the past, and they even followed up with the standard plot line of revenge, redemption, and tournament style fighting (see bloodsport, american samurai, kickboxer, lionheart, enter the dragon, the karate kid, etc. etc. etc.)
Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. Movies from prior decades like The Karate Kid and Enter the Dragon tried to instill a carefully crafted message. The Karate Kid attempted to show the virtues of karate in the form of a wise Mr. Miyagi. Miyagi showed restraint, wise-judgment, and an aversion to violence. Can the same be said for Never Back Down, and the handful of cliched lines it espouses? The same kind of comparison can be made in regards to Bruce Lee’s genuine martial genius.
Of course, it’s not really fair for me to compare this movie to two very good ones. But Never Back Down chose to use the prettiest people and the most shallow message it could manage, instead of choosing a more responsible path.
I don’t need to spray paint it on the wall – I believe that if MMA keeps going in this direction (especially when combined with the pro-wrestling antics of EliteXC), it is going to suffer the same decline that damaged those styles that have come before it. Ultimately, it will be replaced by something new; something that represents the toughness and “realness” that MMA once embodied.
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From a traditionalist who also appreciates what MMA could represent.
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There really is no substitute for a quality instructor. No matter how many video tapes or books a person investigates, a good teacher is the only one who can instill the proper basics and techniques used to make a style effective. We rarely spot all the defects in our own methods, so having a keen eye watching us is critical for improvement.
Unfortunately, we can also become dependent on our instructors. When we go to class, we receive a steady stream of information and corrections designed to make us better. Much like television, it is easy to get hooked on that kind of access. Furthermore, when watching an instructor or receiving advice, it is more like passive learning rather than active. During passive learning, we aren’t challenging ourselves to discover improvements for ourselves. Therefore, we are never really following our own path, we are merely tiptoeing behind our teachers, trying vainly to step exactly where they stepped.
That is why, in addition to going to class faithfully, a martial artist must spend time by him/herself.
Here’s the top 5 reasons I think solo training is worth the time and effort:
5. Resolving Stress
Like most people, I get those days where I am stressed out. Rough day at work, car troubles, rude waiter…whatever the cause, there are just times when the fuse is short. It’s during these times that training on your own can have miraculous effects. Frustration and anxiety are energetic emotions, and kata/bag training serves as an excellent means for giving those tensions an outlet.
Anger driven emotions aren’t the only things that can be resolved; also consider uneasiness, restlessness, and depression. These are states that drain energy and life out of a person. Kata training (both dynamic kata and breathing kata) serve to build spirit and resilience in the practitioner. Often times getting back to the most basic elements of living – breathing and movement – help to put extraneous matters into perspective.
4. Confronting Inadequacies
One of the scariest things about martial arts training is confronting all of that which we don’t know. Many practitioners prefer never to look it in the eye; instead, they focus on proclaiming their excellence in what they do know.
When training alone, you’ll be confronted with this decision as well – will you just run your kata pattern a couple of times, and then hit the bags? Will you focus only on making changes that will help you win trophies?
Or will you take that deep plunge, asking who, what, when, where, and why for every movement?
3. Internal Discussion
Because of all the great info you are receiving in normal martial arts class, there is little time for internal discussion. Integrating corrections and new techniques is hard enough! When you’re alone, you can allow your mind to wander. You can take the time to ask yourself questions.
One of the highest goals of martial arts training is to achieve mushin, or a state of no mind. In mushin, reaction and instinct are in command. The mushin of a trained karateka can only be achieved after martial matters have been internally argued to complete death. Much like in zen satori, the mind just gives up, and all that’s left is technique melded with instinct!
Experiment too much in class, and you’re likely to get a raised eyebrow from your instructor. Think about it – how can he/she be sure that you’re experimenting in a growth-productive manner, instead of just screwing up? Experimenting with technique and body movement on your own is an embarrassment-free alternative.
Of course, this one comes with a caveat – you have to be careful your experimentation doesn’t lead you away from the core principles of your style. The hardest thing to break in the martial arts is a bad habit…so don’t get yourself locked into one if you don’t have to.
1. Developing Questions
My final point here I recommend to you with trumpets blowing in the background, arms flailing, and anything else that gets your attention. All too often, in a state of apathy, practitioners expect their instructors to deliver grand martial secrets to them. One day, they suspect, sensei will unsheathe a scroll; and on that scroll will lay the shadowy death touches they’ve been longing for.
I hate to burst bubbles (that’s not true), but the way to success is a bit less dramatic. Basically, you just have to ask the right questions. This is a remarkable, built-in function of the martial arts. You can’t grow as a martial artist until you ask the right questions to elicit interesting and provocative responses from your instructors, and you can’t ask the right questions until you’ve put in exhaustive efforts into your training.
Pretty clever stuff, huh?
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One final note – training alone in different locations can have different effects. Training alone in the home can serve to comfort you with familiar surroundings…but it can also lead to easy distraction. If possible, secure some alone time in the dojo. A dojo has an innate sense of purpose and helps keep you focused. Furthermore, the quiet watches of the dojo help connect you with the true spirit of your martial art.
Finally, if you have the means, train outside with nature.
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