A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I don’t get off on hurting others.
They’re also skeptical when I say they don’t need to love violence to join a martial art.
In conversation I never debate if martial arts are violent (they are) or if there are violent martial artists (there are). Instead I suggest that you needn’t be driven by bloodlust to get extraordinary value out of training.
Unfortunately, in the world we live in, violence can be thrust on us at any given moment. Whether we like it or not, we can find ourselves in altercations, scrapes, and even life-threatening situations. The two options we have are to depend on the ability of others to help us (like police, security, etc) and to prepare ourselves as best as possible.
In feudal era Japan, a lot of martial art activity involved the desire to kill. A Samurai often increased his status and the prestige of his sword style by dispatching other worthy opponents. This became even more prevalent after the Warring States Period (when most soldiers and Samurai had constant conflict to worry about as opposed to focusing on duels).
Nowadays the closest thing we have (thankfully) is Ultimate Fighting. Martial arts are still a tool of war, just ask the marine corp, but they are also a method of civilian self defense. The shift has been made from glory-through-killing to life preservation.
I’m tempted to liken our situation as civilian martial artists to that of the old Okinawans. The Okinawans were simple farmers, fisherman, etc who developed karate and kobudo as a means to defend themselves with what they had: farming tools and their wits. If a ronin or pirate were to start trouble in their village, the Karateka did what he had to do to eliminate that threat.
I’m tempted to compare us to them – but it’s not the same. The Okinawan Karateka were civilians, policemen, judges, doctors, and spiritual guides all rolled up into one. We are civilians through-and-through and have a deluge of laws to live by. Although I feel as strongly as anyone that we must do all we can to protect ourselves and the ones we love, there are gradations to violence and repercussions that we have to face.
So What Are We?
We are law abiding individuals who realize that the severity of life and death still plays a roll in our lives. Guns make the line of survival only a hairsbreadth wide. That’s not a comforting thought, but what can we do? We can’t pack heat all the time – even gun enthusiasts with licenses to conceal can be caught unawares or unprepared. What we do have is martial arts and they are just as crucial for people who abhor violence as those that love it.
One thing that does concern me is the amount of individuals I hear talking about how much they love to fight/spar, and what a thrill it is to knock someone out. Of course I understand the feeling of empowerment a good technique or strike can give, but I don’t believe causing aggressive dysfunction in another person’s body should be thrilling, nor should it inspire unwarranted confidence in ability. The most effectively violent practitioners I have met are also the most reserved. Their abilities have to be used with care and control in a realistic environment. If that sounds like a tough mixture to obtain – care and control plus realistic aggression – it is. Damn tough, but worth it.
I think a lot of people (including myself) ask themselves from time to time – am I the right kind of person to be studying a combat art? Shouldn’t it be left to someone bigger, tougher, stronger, better?
The answer is no – you need to train and the rest of us need you to train. The people in command of any given situation need to be those that understand and respect violence; those that can use it, but don’t want to. In a world that can snatch everything away quicker than a heartbeat, it is up to each of us to do our best to persevere.
Train if the thought of violence unsettles you – train harder if it makes you shudder.
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Last weekend I had the opportunity to hike the Glen Onoko Falls Trail with my GF FoxyCitrus. Onoko Falls is located in the charming little town of Jim Thorpe, named after the famous multi-talented athlete.
The thing that makes this hike so special is the level of difficulty and, of course, the water. As opposed to most trails that have very well established paths for bikes, walking, horses, etc, the Onoko Falls is as much of a climb as it is a walk.
The trail is very untampered with and climbers are expected to be resourceful. I’ve hiked Onoko twice, and the last time one of my companions wore flipflops. Sadly she didn’t make it to the top, where the best waterfalls are found (not that she died, she just couldn’t manage the climbing).
For a peek at the falls in action, check out this video (not taken by me, but still nice):
and here is a good picture for a sense of scale:
Takishugyo at the Top
As I tend to do, I tried to slip just a little bit of martial arts into the trip. No, I didn’t break out into spontaneous kata, making everyone around me uncomfortable. What I did do was indulge in the practice known as Takishugyo.
“Taki”, meaning waterfall, and “shugyo” meaning intense training, is the practice of spirit strengthening by stepping underneath the crashing waters of a fall.
Takishugyo can be used in a few different ways. The first is as an ablution, or cleansing of the spirit. This is most often found in the buddhist religion and was/is often conducted by priests. The waters are said to cleanse away the impurities acrued by the spirit.
Another aspect of Takishugyo is meditation. This is done by certain Zen sects and martial arts groups, including some karate and aikido practitioners (and possibly others, but I don’t know).
As a meditative tool, Takishugyo challenges the practitioner to overcome fierce external stimuli and focus completely on the self. The freezing cold water shocks the body out of its normal state of complacence and invokes many autonomic reactions including gasping, muscle tension, and flight response.
It is the practitioner’s goal to feel and understand these reactions and to move past them. (To learn more, click here).
Here is a good, quick example of a priest partaking in proper Takishugyo:
He’s pretty old and the waterfall is coming down hard. You have to respect that kind of commitment.
For me personally – I placed the term “Takishugyo” in quotations in my post title because what I did at Onoko was not really correct by any means. I’ve never had formal training from a Zen or Buddhist practitioner. I’ve done my research, but I do not consider myself a real practitioner. However, that being said, I did go for it and got to experience the shocking stimuli of the event for myself.
Whoa! is all I can say. I’m not sure I’ve ever had my train of thought erased so quickly. The speed, impact, sound,and sheer cold of the water caught and held my attention (to say the least). As a novice I decided to stay under for about 45 seconds as extended exposure can be dangerous. To quote the shugendo website: “The brain secretes a hormone that shrinks the size of the arteries when your head is exposed to extreme cold. If it is exuded in large quantities this hormone can cause diameter of the arteries to shrink violently and can result in a stroke or other brain damage! In addition the cold water of winter can provoke a drop in core temperature of the body that can be deadly(hypothermia or heart attack!) Therefore it should only be practiced with competent persons that transmitted to you the tradition.”
It may not have been winter, but it sure was cold.
Would I recommend it?
Yes, absolutely. But be safe. Have someone around to “spot” you and, if you can, be trained in the practice properly. Takishugyo is a fun, exciting test of courage that can teach you about yourself. At the very least if you are dwelling on something and need to reboot your brain…takishugyo will get it done in a hurry.
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The quickest way to get hit by a good fighter is to block them.
Can you visualize what happened just a moment before this picture was snapped? The leftside downward block should give you a big clue. The kicker sold the defender completely on a low technique – probably snapping a front kick before rolling right into a high roundhouse.
The defender deflected the initial attack, but in the process hung himself out to dry for the follow up.
Independent Blocks Will Get You In Trouble!
So why exactly did our wayward defender get rocked? The answer is that he relied on independent blocking.
During basics training, we move up and down the dojo floor practicing our blocks. Left hand blocks high, right hand blocks high, left hand blocks low, right hand blocks low, etc. This drilling is critical to learning good technique, but can also leave practitioners disjointed if they never learn how to integrate it into more natural movement.
Skilled fighters will be able to notice disjointed blocking and capitalize on it immediately. Let me further explain through the magic of stick figure drawing:
As you can see, a disjointed block is really when one arm or leg moves to create a block without the rest of the body doing something useful.
Generating these kinds of openings is a huge staple of fighting, and tournament combatants have made entire careers on knowing how to do it. The more you are able to dictate the movements of your opponent the more you command a fight. What that means is, as defenders, we have to do our best to eliminate falling into these traps.
It is impossible to know what exactly our opponents are going to do. Furthermore, it is wasted mental energy trying to figure it out. If you are constantly trying to analyze and asses the intentions of your opponent, you give him/her the opportunity to dictate the essence of the fight. You will always be a half step behind. Eventually it will catch up to you and you will get overrun.
Fixing The Blocking Problem
In order to fix a problem with reactionary, independent blocking, you have to understand the nature of tactics. Tactics are designed to make you move in a certain way and dictate your train of thought. So that means if your opponent punches low, he wants you to block low in order to create an opening for his/her next attack (or if you’re not fast enough, to actually hit you low).
To nullify the effectiveness of these tactics you have to learn to cover zones and control centerline.
Let’s say you have one hand high covering your facial region, and one low covering your midsection. If the opponent steps in with a low kick or punch and you drop your high hand to block it, you must develop the habit of rotating your bottom hand high to cover the zone you just left open. By cycling your hands in this fashion, you never leave a clear opening even for a quick second attack.
In addition to covering your zones properly, you must develop a good sense of centerline (and distancing) to foil the intentions of your attacker. To use the same example as above, if the attacker comes in with a low kick, instead of blocking at all, you have the option of moving just slightly backward out of range and leaving your hands completely unmoved. At most the kick will graze your bottom hand, which is there to cover anyway.
At this point your defense is completely unaffected by the opponent’s tactic, which means his next attack will be very manageable and unsurprising to you. As he comes in with that high punch, your defense is still in place, which means you can gently brush the punch aside as you step in with your own attack.
This distance and centerline control is also critical when moving side-to-side and on the 45’s.
The key to beating a superior tactician in sparring is to not play the game at all. As they try to invoke movement in you, your superior control of distancing and timing combined with a calm mind can allow you to move in very small increments, and capitalize on openings created by their complex intentions.
Never move your guard unless you have to or unless you want to create an intentional opening. Many people are amazed at how much excess blocking and moving they do simply because their body tells them that they SHOULD block. If a kick comes grazing near your head but never touches you, there is no reason to block. If a person punches at you but is just out of range, no need to block.
Become an enigma of simplicity! Conserve your movement and wait patiently for the right time to be aggressive.
Find someone in your dojo who has good control. Have them come in at you with attacks while you are in your on-guard posture. Make sure you are guarding your high zone and low zone, however it is you like to do that. Have your partner come in with various controlled attacks and practice avoiding the attacks with minimal movement. Keep your hands as still as possible, brushing attacks aside just enough so that they barely miss you. Don’t commit to blocking and don’t chase their attacks. Be as simple as possible and if you have to drop or raise a hand, make sure to cycle the other hand to cover the exposed zone.
This drill is all about feeling. Feel just how little you need to do to move outside, around, or in front of their techniques. Keep your legs underneath you and ready to spring backward, frontward, or to the side. With your body doing so little, your mind will be free to notice the cues the opponent is sending when they are about to attack (or are in a position of weakness), and since you are still in a position of strength, you’ll be able to act and dominate.
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