This is the third article in Reader Week II. In this somber post, author Helen Cawley examines the state of her martial arts after losing not just one but two Sensei. These influential men led their style (Ryute) and passed away in close succession. Now Ms. Cawley faces the burden of honoring those instructors while trying to figure out how to carry on.
Adapting and Adjusting (How to Carry On After Losing a Sensei)
This past year, two of my teacher’s passed away, Taika Seiyu Oyata and Tasshi Jim Logue, and I have found it more difficult than just mourning the death of two people I loved dearly. The first months were about getting used to the fact that I couldn’t just pick up the phone and say “Hi”, among other things. Training was very difficult. I kept thinking, what was the point? How could I really improve with out their guidance? How would our organization stay together? Would we continue to train as a group? Who would teach us?
I always tell people that I started studying martial arts by accident. I say “I wasn’t looking where I was going and tripped and fell into a class”. I really didn’t know what it meant besides the Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies. What really sold it to me was seeing how I, as a small woman, could have a fighting chance against a much larger man. I wasn’t looking for a fight or MMA, or scoring points for trophies. I enjoy the empowerment I feel by knowing I can stand my ground if I need to. At some point I discovered that martial arts training becomes part of your daily life, like drinking a cup of water, and you never think about not doing it.
Then, I met Taika Oyata, and I was exposed to a level of martial arts that I had never dreamed of. I saw a grace and sophistication that was beyond any silver screen, green screen or televised fight. Small angles had dramatic effects. A slight twist of a wrist with a bend in the knee could send a six foot, 200 pound man flying across the room. And then I realized what the “art” in martial arts meant. There was no divine channel being tapped to magically slam his opponents to the ground. There was no magic wand behind a curtain. Taika was a man. He was a man who studied and thought and practiced and practiced again. It was not one month or one year or 100 repetitions that set him apart from anyone I had seen before; it was 10,000 or maybe 100,000 repetitions and an unbelievable mind. I am thankful that I was able to spend 20 years going to his seminars and learning fascinating details from him. Many of the drills and concepts he gave us could not possibly be learned in a 4 hour seminar. We usually got a study plan that he expected us to practice and show him how we improved when we saw him again in a few months. He often said that he can show us what to do, but we have to investigate each technique ourselves; we have to train our own body. We were often chided for talking too much and training too little.
He wanted us to be professional in our study, professional in our technique, and he wanted us to know his culture and his family history. This was important to him because he wanted us to know that he was passing down his art to us from his teachers and that what he learned from them was from their teachers, and their teachers before them. It is hard to have these lessons in my memory only. It is hard working with a group of people and only hear in my head that booming voice yelling “No, godamit” across the room at me. I want to be able to have that voice telling me if I am getting it right or wrong and implicitly trust that the answer is true.
And now they are gone and I am not and I can’t stop thinking about punching, blocking, adjusting, and practicing. So, where do I go from here? My only analogy that I can hold on to is that I have been given a gift; his students were all given a gift. We have been given ideas and drills and methods of study to follow. If this gift had been an ancient porcelain vase of the finest quality, how would I treat it? This I can answer: I would cherish it, feel responsible for its preservation, and share its beauty with my friends who could appreciate it. So now, how do I do that with memories and old lessons? The cherish part I can do, but preservation and sharing are more difficult. What if I remembered something incorrectly? I don’t know if I will be able to preserve, accurately what I was taught. What if I’m doing a drill and I forget a step or a block? I might start an exercise on the wrong foot and it might come out as a cheap carbon copy instead of true technique. Maybe I need to share with my friends and together our memories will be more accurate. If five people all remember the same motion the same way, it has to be right, doesn’t it? But what if we argue instead of share and we twist around the truth in a lesson we were given? What if everyone remembers something slightly different, because we are different and the right way to do a technique is relative? Who is going to tell us which one of us is more right, and if someone does, will we believe them? I guess to move on I will have to take that risk. This idea is a big adjustment for me, but I’m going to give it a try, anyway. I do feel responsible to preserve what I know I know and to pass it on. It is what Taika really wanted us to do.
This is the second article in Reader Week II. Author Jason Knight is a Nidan in Washin-Ryu Karate-do with the Pacific Martial Arts Federation. He holds a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling where he studied the psychological benefits of martial arts training. He has developed karate programs for non-profits and school districts focusing on character development throughout San Diego and Los Angeles Counties. He continues this work in his dojo in Los Angeles and writes about personal transformation through karate-do training in his blog yearofbruce.com.
The Science Behind the Benefits of Martial Arts Training
As martial artists, many of us are familiar with Eastern philosophical descriptions of the benefits of martial arts training. Just as Western medicine has begun research into understanding the possible benefits of Eastern medicine, Western research psychology has begun to investigate the possible benefits of Eastern approaches to psychological health due to the tendency to focus on preventative mental health as opposed to waiting until problems become visible and more entrenched. In traditional Japanese culture, this would often take the form of parents recruiting an adult role model who would lead their child on a path of learning involving a traditional art. These arts have included iaido, ikebana, chado, and karate-do (Suzuki, 1970).
Seeking to understand the benefits of the martial arts, Western research in disciplines including education, psychology, and sports psychology have begun to explore how the martial arts can effect mental wellness. Alan James and Richard Jones (1982) were among the first researchers to describe the benefits of karate-do as a means of cultural development. In their research they describe how through karate-do’s systematic form of training, individuals go through a process of acquiring a new social identity and consequently begin to absorb the dojo’s belief system. The authors discuss character development along two processes: physical and mental (pg. 343):
“An important accomplishment of many novice karatika comes from pushing the body through a sequence of strenuous physical exercises … By pushing the body to the limits and beyond, the karatika becomes aware of an inner strength, and gains the confidence in being able to perform exercises previously regarded as impossible … Increased fitness and suppleness, an awareness of what has been achieved on the physical plane, penetrates the psychological make-up of the karatika and contributes to the emergence of a new, confident self-image.”
In this case, the authors describe the process as pushing the body in order to develop physical awareness, which in turn will improve psychological awareness. As a result of this new self-image, the authors describe a state of preparedness “which is expressed in the normative expectation that once a karatika enters the dojo he becomes and remains, fully alert and prepared … (involving) concentration on one’s own efforts and ignoring everything else” (p 343). The authors further state, “In time, longer and more intense periods of concentration (occur), thereby enhancing self-confidence and diminishing self-consciousness” (p. 244).
Schmidt (1982) describes martial arts training, as it is thought of in Japan, as philosophical education. This training unfolds as a process that emerges from the relationship between the student and Sensei and progresses in a predictable way. The author explains further (p. 71):
“Reflective of the Zen method of training, the emphasis is on a non-verbalized, intuitive approach, rather than intellection … It is the total involvement of one’s physical and mental powers to unceasingly struggle for a solution to a problem.”
In the above statement, the problem can be conceptualized as the attempt for perfection, while the struggle could be conceptualized as a progressively increasing set of goals. The author further describes how this training develops across four stages: gyo, shugyo, jutsu, and do (p. 72):
“The gyo, or introductory, stage represents the initial level of training, where the Budoka, is introduced to his chosen martial art, its customs and etiquette, his teachers and senseis, as well as his training hall, the dojo. The trainee learns that budo techniques must be practiced assiduously. At this level, training is a process of trial and error. (At the shugyo stage), the trainee attempts to reproduce the actions of the master teacher. … The master teacher presents the trainee with physical koans (kata in karate-do), which force the trainee to solve the various conceptual problems associated with this particular art. (At the jutsu level), the trainee has acquired a mastery of basic skills but still senses an incompleteness in the techniques. Movements once requiring conscious thought processes are now fully internalized and executed automatically. At the do stage, training becomes an ‘artless’ art where the expert, who has transcended the outer forms, is both master of himself and the art.”
Additionally, Kauz (1977) explains (pg. 83):
“The intention is to learn to focus the conscious mind on something other than our everyday concerns, which usually receive its exclusive attention. Moreover, the students attempt to maintain their focus for longer and longer periods of time, undistracted by intruding thoughts or sensations (italics added).”
Weiser, Kutz, Jaconsen, and Weiser (1995) describe martial arts training as a more effective psychotherapy (pg. 123):
“The physical learning through the nonverbal exercises of the martial arts can improve mental health. It fosters recognition of the integration of mind and body, teaches practitioners to relax, to focus, to communicate, to persevere, and to be self-aware and self-accepting, while striving for improvement. In addition, it emphasizes minimizing fear and anger in order to maximize focus and concentration.”
Improved Attention Through “Flow”
In researching elite-level athletes and entrepreneurs, Csikszentmihalyi (1990), appears to have discovered individuals who are highly adept at seeking out and creating ‘do’ experiences in their lives. He called this process “flow” based on the subjective report of feeling “in the flow” described by many of the subjects that he had studied. He describes a phenomenon that occurs with many elite individuals whether through rock climbing or running a Fortune 500 company. When engaged in the activity in which they had achieved an elite status, these individuals described the following psychological processes:
“A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear cues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over. … Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. … People are willing to do (a flow activity) for it’s own sake.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 71)
This definition describes how flow is essentially the experience of a participant in a specific type of activity that provides rules, structure that can facilitate growth, and is action oriented. The psychological effect of an activity such as this can be quite profound for the participant and can include the psychological processes described below.
Challenge-skill balance is characterized by the perception of a balance between situational challenges and individual skills.
Unambiguous feedback can be described as clear, immediate feedback regarding the activity.
Action-awareness merging is characterized by the participant’s deep involvement in the activity so that it becomes “spontaneous or automatic” (Jackson and Marsh, 1996, pp. 18-19).
Total concentration in the activity is one aspect of the flow experience, which “leaves no room in the mind for irrelevant information” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 58).
A sense of exercising control can be experienced in the flow process, without consciously thinking about exerting control over the self. The action of the activity dominates consciousness and the sense of the independent self can be lost.
The participant may have a perception that time feels either slower or faster, or time may feel absent from consciousness as objective time is superceded “by the rhythms dictated by the activity” (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 66, 1990).
These flow states appear to be quite similar to the state that is described as mushin (“no-mind”) in Zen Buddhist philosophy. When an individual is involved in a do-zen activity it has been described as feeling like one is moving automatically without will (flow state of action-awareness merging), with single-pointed concentration (flow state of total concentration), feeling totally in control of oneself and indeed one’s opponent (flow state of sense of exercising control), and feeling as if no time had passed (flow state of time feeling slower or faster).
It is through developing these heightened awarenesses that karate-do students may develop increased concentration and develop a sense of calmness, relaxation, and freedom from agitation (Columbus & Rice, 1998). It has even been postulated that juvenile delinquency may be a result of a lack of flow or do-zen experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 69):
“Much of what has been labeled juvenile delinquency—car theft, vandalism, rowdy behavior in general—is motivated by the need to have flow experiences not available in ordinary life. As long as a significant segment of society has few opportunities to encounter meaningful challenges, and few chances to develop the skills necessary to benefit from them, we must expect that violence and crime will attract those who cannot find their way to a more complex autotelic (self-directed flow) experience.”
This is, of course, a process of development that involves a lifetime of training and involves many experiences, but is an attempt nonetheless to explore how traditional martial arts training aids in character development. This article highlights that if actions are continuously repeated in slow progression toward mastery until actions and thinking become spontaneous, major benefits occur. In Zen philosophy, spontaneous action is the natural state that allows the mentally unencumbered individual to act in a continuously tranquil, yet powerful manner. This is the ultimate desired outcome and has natural ramifications for positive mental health.
Images Sourced From:
One of the most classic training implements of karate is the makiwara. The makiwara seems simple enough on the surface – a piece of wood stuck into the ground which karateka punch over and over again. However, the value and application of makiwara training is hidden away within that simplicity.
The actual construction of makiwara devices is surprisingly diverse (and easy to get wrong, believe it or not). Instructors have been finding ways to hang, post, and secure striking surfaces into their dojo(s) for generations. That being said, there are some ground rules that can separate a good makiwara from a bad one. A good makiwara must have the ability to flex with the strike, ideally in a manner that increases resistance the more force the striker puts into it (hence the value of a wooden post secured to the ground). A good makiwara must also have a striking surface that challenges the practitioner but also helps keep him/her safe (ie: no broken glass ala Kickboxer).
As such, smart makiwara construction avoids punching things on walls and punching surfaces that are too hard.
Adding Makiwara Capabilities to a BOB Bag
With the above guidelines in mind, I was able to convert my BOB bag into a mobile, functional Makiwara that did not sacrifice any of the original functionality of the BOB Bag.
To learn how I did it, watch the following video:
As I mention in the video, this is not a perfect replica of what makiwara training provides, especially in the sense of increased resistance. Nevertheless, the convenience of it has helped me integrate more consistent impact training than ever before.
For quick reference, the items I used are as follows: a compressed cardboard hard cover book, duct tape, rough canvas cloth, two T-shirts, and a BOB bag (optional sub-outs include hard wood instead of a book and a potentially added mousepad).