Over the weekend I had a chance to train with Bill Hayes Sensei, and as usual my brain was quickly overheated. I try my best to retain more and more, but it is certainly an ongoing endeavor.
One of the things he covered was the idea of training for longevity and realizing how your martial arts have to adapt over time. Hayes Sensei is in his 60s, and his instructor Eizo Shimabukuro is in his 80s. It is no freak accident that they are both in excellent condition and can still train regularly.
Maintaining longevity in the martial arts is a complex endeavor. It is a combination of stress reduction, persistent physical activity, proper diet and nutrient intake, and making sound choices on how to push your body. A lot of “normal” training is designed for individuals in the mid-part of their lives (20-50 or so). But a man/woman of 70 should not press their bodies the same way as a 20 year old (and the same is true for a child of 9 or 10).
When considering training children, one of the top priorities has to be how the training methods will ultimately affect their physical development.
I’ve never been a big supporter of object breaking as part of a child’s training regiment. The bones are still developing and the muscles are not properly conditioned for that kind of impact. Repeated hard contact can make for severe problems later on, and could even lead to fractures and slight bone deformities (in rare cases). Children have to be introduced to contact gradually, utilizing soft materials at first and padded materials for years as they grow up.
Another example of traditional training for young students involves stances. Deep, wide stances are perfect for developing leg muscles and improving balance. By practicing elongated stances combined with large movements the body increases it’s range of motion and can be used in ways both understandable and suitable for children.
From there concepts can be refined, shortened, and improved after the body is put on the right developmental track.
Once relative adulthood is reached, training can begin its maximum intensity. Power generation becomes extremely important, and people often engage in practices such as body hardening, weight lifting, hojo undo, speed training, etc etc. This is because the body is at its peak potential for physical exertion.
Ironically, even though the body is able to take surprising amounts of abuse at this stage, it is important to set good habits here. If you allow yourself to over-indulge in body hardening, abusive full contact fighting, and snapping techniques with stress on the joints, you can set your body down a path of degradation.
Training into mature years requires adaptation and thought, even if you’ve successfully integrated into a “style”.
An excellent example given by Hayes Sensei involves sanchin kata. During sanchin we often see an intense tension and breath throughout the kata. This helps build muscular endurance and strength. it also teaches the practitioner how to use breath and increase power/energy in certain parts of the body. However, if a person continues to train with that same vigor as they get older, it can actually lead to heart, muscular, and cardiovascular problems.
A skilled, mature practitioner of sanchin will adapt the tension so as to maintain the health benefits while avoiding the physical risks. This is a complex process, and should only be done under qualified instruction.
Another example is the use of the makiwara (or breaking and hard-object-hitting in general). Even though makiwara training can help a person learn how to transmit power and develop excellent conditioning for striking, constant pounding on the hands and the conjoined meridians can slowly wear down a person’s health. Depending on which meridian is being abused, the internal health of the person can be degraded as well as the immediate joints and ligaments in the limbs.
Mature training also speaks to stance work, height of kicks, and other matters.
It is important to realize that when you see a skilled practitioner doing kojin kata (old man’s kata), it should not be because their body can no longer handle “real training”, but because they’ve refined their technique and have made wise choices on how to make their training appropriate for them.
Being able to identify the difference between kojin kata and a person who has simply lost skill is an important ability to develop.
Gichin Funakoshi, the famous karateka who inspired the development of Shotokan and the dissemination of karate throughout Japan, wrote a pivotally important biography known as “Karate-do: My Way of Life“. In this all-too-brief book Funakoshi describes his martial arts training and experiences throughout his long life (he lived to be 88).
One of the stories he tells involves a poetry reading party in the city of Tamagawa. After enjoying a night of festivities, the 80-year-old Funakoshi rode the train back to Otsuka station, where he set off to walk the rest of the way home.
Carrying only his umbrella and furoshiki (essentially a cloth sack), Funakoshi traveled along the night street when suddenly a figure popped out from behind a lamp post. The young tough confronted Funakoshi, first reaching toward his umbrella, then engaging him in nervous small-talk. He asked Funakoshi for a cigarette, and when Funakoshi claimed he had none, the tough demanded to see the inside of the furoshiki.
When Funakoshi refused, the tough grabbed the umbrella and swung it at Funakoshi’s head. Funakoshi ducked and grabbed the thief by his testicles. The pain froze the young man, and as a street constable came by, Funakoshi was able to release the man into the officer’s custody.
On a separate occasion Funakoshi was attempting to board a ferry that was connected to a dock by a single wood plank. Unfortunately, at that time, a storm was brewing and caused the sea to become quite uneven.
As Funakoshi stepped onto the board, the sea swelled and a high wave began to form. Relying on instinct and quick reactions, Funakoshi balanced himself and then swung his luggage forward, using that momentum to carry his body on board the ferry, barely avoiding a dangerous spill into the ocean.
The Big So-Whats
There are a couple of valuable takeaways that we can extract from these small tales. The first is that nobody gets a free ride when it comes to personal safety. No matter what part of town you’re in, or who you are, your personal safety is something for you to consider seriously. Men, as well as children, women, and the elderly should understand that violence can occur in a moment’s notice for a wide variety of reasons. The attacker could be desperate, bored, mentally unstable, sexually deviant, and so on.
In modern times there has been a stronger push for equality in the arts, where as short as a generation ago it was largely considered man’s domain. This movement toward the equal inclusion of women and children should be continued, and we as martial artists should do our best to spread the core concepts of our arts. We also need to be certain to spread the proper mind and heart that goes along with this kind of dangerous training, otherwise we are merely flooding the streets with more effective thieves, stalkers, etc etc.
Secondly, it is critical that we do not overestimate our own prowess. Through years of hard training we become confident in our abilities to defend ourselves and others, maybe even using that skill in live scenarios. Nevertheless, confidence can easily lead to overconfidence, which can re-introduce many of the pitfalls that haunt people completely unskilled in the art of self defense.
Someone like Funakoshi spent a lifetime training in the arts and honing his abilities, and even he was caught unawares from time to time. No matter how well tuned your radar, and how street-wise you are, it’s important to remember your own human limitations. By doing that you can stay sharp, continue to make good decisions, and try your best to integrate your art in such a way that it expresses itself naturally without highly structured decision making.
This natural integration can manifest itself in unexpected ways, like it did with Funakoshi when he saved himself on the dock. Even his instructor Yasutsune Azato expressed marvel at Funakoshi’s enhanced abilities to react to the unpredictable dangers of the ocean that day.
Finally, if you wish to pursue karate in the same fashion as the old masters, you need to take these stories into even deeper consideration. In Funakoshi’s encounter with the street mugger, he attempts to hold off from violent behavior as best as possible (some might say he waited far too long to act). Yet, at the end of telling that story, Funakoshi expresses regret at having ‘taken the offensive’ against his attacker. He sympathizes with the man whom he surmises was likely a vet coming home to nothing, and living in a state of desperation.
To live the way Funakoshi lived requires an unwavering mind which some people may find too unrealistic to implement in their day-to-day lives. Until you have come to a conclusion about your own willingness to conduct violence, and when you might deem it appropriate, you’ll have a gap in your defenses.
Although martial arts training can (and should) help people overcome fear and uncertainty, it is critical to never lose that tactile realization that even you could be cut, hit, and taken advantage of.
The dojo can be a perplexing place. Everything is different – the clothes, the atmosphere, the terminology, the etiquette…it truly is a whole different culture. Why then are we expected to jump in without any knowledge of what to expect? Even experienced students get tripped up by the intricacies of the martial arts.
Every dojo has its own way of operating, but over the years I have found certain foundational concepts that lead practitioners to success and longevity in their training. I have also noticed some very common pitfalls that trap students in ways they never saw coming. It is my goal with this ebook to give students of all ages and ranks a deeper understanding of how to prosper in their chosen art.
Who It’s For:
This ebook is for traditional martial artists of all styles and experience levels. I start at the very beginning in order to help prepare individuals who have never stepped foot in a dojo. I move on to explain how to achieve continued success for current students, and end with advanced advice for people who are black belt and beyond.
Parents who are starting their kids in the arts can also benefit. As a parent, it is critical that you have an understanding of what is normal and abnormal behavior in a martial art school. Furthermore, you’ll want to learn how to deal with problem students, teachers, and other issues that could arise. You can also pass this ebook on to your child (depending on age of course) as it is written in a very accessible manner.
Here is a small sampling of the info covered inside -
- Achieving a beginner’s mindset
- Learning the martial arts uniform and belt
- Taking care of yourself and avoiding pitfalls
- Stretching and effective practice
- Handling problems with teachers and other students
- Fighting and self defense
- Dealing with rank and hierarchy
- Shuhari and lessons in being advanced
How To Download and Spread the Word:
To download the ebook, click on the above link or right here. If you are having trouble viewing it, make sure to install the latest version of Adobe Reader (which is also free). The ebook will likely open in a new window – from there click the little disk in the upper left hand corner to officially save it to your computer.
If you’d like to link to the ebook and tell your readers about it, here is some html (you can actually win some cool prizes by linking in):
<a href = “http://www.ikigaiway.com/2009/students-dojo-survival-guide/”>Free Martial Arts Ebook – Student’s Guide to Surviving a Traditional Dojo</a>
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I hope you enjoy the book, and if you have any comments please leave them in the field below. I’m always looking for feedback or thoughts on what you think I should write about in the future.