(This is a fictional story with fabricated characters and events. Resemblance to real life individuals or incidences is purely coincidental.)
Coby’s black belt was beginning to show the first signs of frayed, white strands around the edges. He was by no means a master, but had become a regular at Yahara Sensei’s dojo. He fell in love with karate at a young age and never found a reason to stop. That is, until his work moved him hours away from his old home. He faced a choice – quit training, or find a new teacher for the first time since he started his martial arts journey.
Luck was with Coby as he was browsing schools online. Konishi Tsuyoshi, a nearby instructor, taught the same style as Yahara Sensei. Coby visited the Konishi school and was asked to sit and watch a class. Coby observed Konishi Sensei take command of the room, gliding across the floor in a stern and disciplined manner. Konishi lead the students through a brief etiquette ceremony, and then began the class. The training was hard and heavy. Konishi expected focus and effort from the students; anything less was met with a disapproving glare.
Coby shifted in his seat nervously, feeling a combination of fear and admiration for the Sensei. When it came time to sign up for class, Coby agreed. It was such a sharp contrast from his days with Yahara Sensei. He recalled his old teacher fondly; certainly Yahara made his students work and sweat, but he always had a grin on his face and music to his step. This would be a change of pace for certain.
* * * * * * * * * *
Coby trained diligently with Konishi Sensei. At first he found the dojo challenging, but soon came to welcome the rigorous workouts. It wasn’t until a full year had passed that Coby actually sat down with his teacher in a more informal setting, chatting and getting to know the man as more than just a Sensei.
While relaxing with Konishi Sensei at lunch Coby pulled out a small laptop. “Look Sensei,” Coby said. “I found an interesting video online. This appears to be some form of Jujitsu. They spend a lot of time closing distance and going to the ground. What do you think?”
Konishi Sensei eyed the video, then shook his head disapprovingly. “Too much time on the ground,” he said. “That’s exactly where you don’t want to be in a fight. While you’re down there, that close, you can get kicked by other people or stabbed if the opponent has a hidden knife. We always train to prevent going to the ground.” Coby nodded his head, accepting the obvious wisdom of the statement.
Later that week Coby returned to his hometown to visit family. While there, he stopped in to see Yahara Sensei. They sipped tea together and Coby recalled the Jujitsu video. “Yahara Sensei, there is a video online I would like you to watch.” “Ohh?” Yahara remarked, “Ok.” Coby showed the clip of Jujitsu practitioners throwing and grappling. Yahara Sensei stroked his short beard and eventually said, “I had a friend once who was tackled from behind while walking down the street at night. I bet he could have used some of these techniques to recover from the disadvantage, or, at least, escape the ground more easily.”
Coby hadn’t considered that possibility.
* * * * * * * * * *
Two weeks later Coby found himself enjoying more down time with Konishi. “Sensei,” he said.”I’ve got another video for you. This time it’s karate.” Coby showed a clip of two practitioners in flamboyant uniforms performing jumps, kicks, and rolls throughout their kata. Konishi Sensei shook his head in dismay. “How can this pass for karate?” he asked. “This resembles nothing of the art from my homeland. We work so hard to preserve the culture, kata, and art of karate. Yet here we have people propagating something completely wrong.” Konishi’s disappointment was palpable, and Coby wondered how the practitioners in the video could excuse their wayward performance.
Remembering his previous experience with Yahara Sensei, Coby decided to show the video to his old Sensei the next time he visited home. Yahara watched the video thoughtfully. After the performance concluded, Coby remarked, “What do you think Sensei? Certainly this doesn’t resemble the karate we do.”
“True,” Yahara Sensei said. “But you can see the passion with which they perform. We should appreciate their commitment to a craft.”
Coby found himself less-than-convinced. What if people continued to post videos of fake, watered down karate? It could increase in popularity and the real art could be lost forever.
* * * * * * * * * *
Coby continued to train diligently. He focused less on the internet and more on the dojo, until one day he stumbled upon a video of the very same style of karate he studied. Surprised and excited to see someone who’s kata and techniques resembled that of his instructors, he decided to approach Konishi once again. “Sensei,” he said. “I know our style isn’t the most widespread in the world, but I found someone else performing our art online. Take a look!” Konishi Sensei viewed the video, then pressed his lips thinly together while shaking his head. “This is not good Coby-san. I know the man in the video. He lacks our understanding of kata and application. You can see it all the way down to his foundation and his stances. Of all people to post videos online, it should not be him. This speaks to his arrogance.”
Coby understood Konishi Sensei’s point. It was definitely audacious of the man in the video to think he was the best representative for the style.
When last Coby and Yahara Sensei spoke, Yahara provided thin answers to Coby’s concerns. Nevertheless, Coby still respected the man’s opinion. He visited home a few weeks later and arranged to speak to Yahara once again. “Sensei,” he said. “I found a video of our style online. Would you take a look?” Coby showed the video to Yahara, waiting tensely and attempting to read the old man’s face as he watched. After the video concluded, Yahara nodded and scratched the small hairs of his beard.
“What do you think Sensei? Should this be posted online?” Yahara Sensei looked up in surprise. “That is not for me to say Coby! I do not control the actions of others. However, if it raises awareness of our style’s history and methods, I don’t see the harm in it.”
“But Sensei,” Coby replied. “Don’t you think this man is lacking foundation? Doesn’t he seem arrogant in his own knowledge, despite how much he lacks?” Yahara Sensei sighed, then said, “If we are all overly humble and choose not to share, the art will die with our humility. Even if this gentleman is not the best, perhaps it will inspire students to seek out the more senior teachers of the style.”
Coby considered the matter closed, but Yahara Sensei continued, “Coby-san, your critiques have merit. But be careful. The spirit of karate is not one of judgment, but of acceptance. One of support and protection, not of aggression. When watching others we may not see what we think karate should be, but our aim is to help them, not to steal their passion from them.”
“Sensei,” Coby replied. “isn’t it our job to protect our art and see it preserved properly? Aren’t we doing a disservice to others by not correcting videos like these?”
“I admire your sense of duty,” Yahara said. “But if you wish to make others richer, do not begin by stealing what they already have. Find what is valuable in what they do, and do your best to build on it. If they truly aim to achieve their best, they will likewise find the wisdom in your teaching and correct their path. I don’t dismiss the faults you observed in your videos…but I hope you see the importance of the mindset in which you judge.”
Coby thanked his instructor, and bid him farewell…until the next meeting for tea.
Most traditional martial artists arrive at a point in their training when they realize violence “ain’t what it used to be”. Sure, humans are essentially unchanged. We still have two hands, two feet, a brain, and a mouth which we can use to get ourselves into trouble…but quite a bit has changed beyond that. Nowadays we have to concern ourselves with easily concealable weapons like folding knives, guns, mace, Tazers, etc. Not only that, but we operate inside of a civilized society with rules and consequences for violence.
Certainly our old styles are too antiquated to handle that sort of environment?
In some ways…yes…but don’t run off and burn your belt just yet. The old ways may need tweaking in order to compensate for modern law and tools of violence, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw them out entirely. In fact, in some ways old styles may be even better suited to the reality of modern civilian violence than many military and mixed martial arts.
Psychological Insight with Rory Miller
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Rory Miller and consuming a large amount of his published material. He has quickly become one of my favorite voices in understanding violence and finding ways to cope with it in modern society. He has an understanding of traditional martial arts and decades of experience in detentions and law enforcement. As a result he can dig down as deep as you want into psychology and law but still explain it in a digestible way.
If you’d like to kickstart a Rory Miller library of your own I would recommend these two DVDs:
|Facing Violence||Logic of Violence|
In “Logic of Violence”, Rory explores the different kinds of predators that an individual may face. In addition, he discusses the most probable victims for each of those predators and how they go about determining the best places to hunt, who they hunt for, and how citizens can understand which predators may be targeting them.
At one point, he breaks down the different predator types like so:
In order to understand the fundamental point of this blog post (ways in which old style training is optimal for modern violence), we need to investigate Rory’s structure a little closer.
You’ll notice in the chart above that predators are broken into two fundamental groups: asocial and social. Asocial predators are the ones with no desire to look good in front of others. They want something from you (your money, your body, your watch, etc) and the violence they inflict is to that end. They may simply enjoy the process of killing or raping and thus the action is the goal.
Social predators are very much concerned with how their actions are perceived and who perceives them. The monkey dance for example is often exhibited when two males compete over ego, a female, or territory. An educational beatdown may occur if a stranger or group member breaks the perceived rules of a particular group (think biker gang).
I won’t belabor the different predators here, but if you want to understand each type be sure to check out Rory’s work linked above.
The most interesting thing about the predator types is how different they may act. Asocial predators, for example, do not want an audience. They want to finish their task as quickly as possible. They also want the weakest, most lucrative targets they can get with little thought of ego (beating up an old lady and stealing her car won’t get the crook street cred but it will result in a financial gain).
A monkey dancing jerk on the other hand wants as many people as possible to witness his show of strength and dominance. As such he will puff his chest out, make declarations, and be sure to prove a point while fighting someone he deems worth the effort (a social predator would be more likely to challenge another fit male rather than an old man).
With that understood, let’s look at the habits of martial arts training and why old methods are well designed to deal with these predatory situations.
The Ironic Ego Build for Fit Athletes
One of Rory’s favorite quotes is as follows: “A lot of martial arts involve fighters teaching fighters how to fight fighters.” Once you break that down and wade through the meaning, it makes a lot of sense. Take a peek into many hardknock schools and you’ll likely see lots of fit, tone, big individuals that you wouldn’t want to tangle with. These schools are supposedly teaching students how to survive encounters on the street. They talk about defending against muggers and knife wielding murderers. But here’s the twist – most of the individuals training are NOT the primary target for resource and process predators.
If you were a mugger and you were watching for people to attack, would you choose the bulky, 6’0″ guy wearing the “tap, snap, or nap” T-shirt? No. So many of the fantasies regarding street self defense are misplaced.
As we discussed in the predator chart above, fit men are at risk mostly from social attacks, either from a single challenger or a group that wants to beat him down. Now if we take a trained martial artist and add in an inflated ego and bloodlust thanks to constant aggressive training he becomes even more of a target. The means and methods of his “self defense” have, in fact, heightened the probability of him getting attacked.
Here is where old style training kicks in. As opposed to the more modern mindset of “strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir”, the old method was steeped in ritual and process to promote humility. Students were (and still are in some places) inclined to clean the dojo floor, dust around photos of old masters, bow into and out of the dojo, etc etc. This process feels belabored and humiliating to a lot of modern artists, and certainly it has been abused by many instructors. However, what these habits tried to instill was the idea that a puffed up ego would not get a student ahead in the dojo. With ego deflation as part of the training, the student was more inclined to keep that ego controlled when in “real life” environments.
There is an old saying that the stalk with the most rice bows the lowest. Similarly, it was considered a great sign of individual character when a martial arts master went unnoticed in a room, and many masters would do everything in their power to divert attention away from themselves. Do these qualities not sound more fitting to survive social violence encounters, the kind likely to befall modern civilians who are fit and able?
The Ideal Training When Victimization Rises
We discussed how a great many martial artists are strong and capable individuals, making them non-ideal targets for process and resource predators. But then, who would be ideal? Women perhaps due to less inherent physical strength (even well trained women if they catch the eye of a determined predator)…but who else? What about children? The elderly?
Have you ever seen old boxers walking around? Not only are their bodies battered but often their minds as well. Every now and then we hear a great story about an old time boxer fending off some punk kids, but all too often the extreme punishment of the sport takes it’s toll during middle age and later in life. Same goes for many football players, pro wrestlers, and pro fighters. They were athletes training at the top of their game, but now they are lucky to move around without assistance.
On the other hand, there are seniors in old style martial arts like karate that can move with alarming speed and fluidity:
Of course karate and other hard styles can go overboard and instill too much bodily abuse, but the essence of longevity is there for students to explore.
The key to old style training is the combination of self defense capabilities with body awareness, wellness, diet, and moderation. A good, balanced program will feature challenging elements like body conditioning and sparring but spell them with bouts of kata training, meditation, and kihon (basics). This diversity allows the practitioner to become skillful in his/her prime years but continue training passed that time. In fact, the solo training becomes even more important for maintaining fitness.
Underestimated even in many of today’s modern schools is the old emphasis on wellness and diet. The idea of keeping the inside of the body fit used to be as important as the outside. Of course, it’s harder to sell diet and wellness as part of a business model and modern students hardly consider it any business of the Sensei. However, when observed carefully, these old ways allow for training well into old age. As we established, old age is the exact time when even fit males start to become targets for resource and process predators. In his book “Karatedo: My Way of Life”, Funakoshi recounts multiple self defense encounters he had later in life. It wasn’t dynamic fighting that saved him but good common sense techniques like using implements (an umbrella for example) and simple but effective techniques (groin strikes).
If Funakoshi was unable to move efficiently in his autumn years he would have become just another victim despite decades of hard training.
Simple and Reliable Concepts
In his video and written material Rory does very little explanation of the techniques he likes to use. Instead he prefers the viewer/reader to apply what they already do in a functional context. However, one stipulation he does suggest is that techniques should be simple, robust (can go wrong but still be salvageable), redundant (work on almost anything), and congruent with your mindset (works with your ideal distance and body type). One of his favorites is a two hand “augmented” technique that looks like this:
In Okinawan Karate we refer to this technique as “meotode” or “mefutode”. It is one of the most fundamental positions we adopt and is featured prominently in our kata. Watch Seisan below for an obvious example of this technique in action:
The fantastic thing about this body posture is that it meets all of Rory’s common sense requirements for a good self defense method. It closes off the most vulnerable parts of the body, works with the natural body flinch reflex, can be used with open or closed hand, keeps all body weapons in play, and builds upon itself in redundancy so that if an initial movement fails it has a followup coming directly after. Best of all, there are routines to drill it so that it becomes muscle memory.
The funny thing is, it isn’t a glamorous fighting method. It probably won’t win any tournament competitions and wouldn’t be ideal in a professional bout. However, in a real self defense situation when the body is tight, adrenaline is high, and the mind is resetting down to what it has trained the most…this technique is a winner and it can be found in old karate, kung fu, and others.
Defense First Mindset
“Karate Ni Sente Nashi” is a phrase that adorns the walls of many dojo. It means “There is no First Attack in Karate”. Some people like to interpret that literally in that a block is always thrown before a strike. However, I tend to interpret it more philosophically. The main idea behind the phrase is that the mind does not act aggressively toward others without provocation. If a kareteka senses danger he/she may choose to take the initiative but it was only due to the fact that all other options for resolution seem to have failed.
This is an important concept to study as it coincides with the modern legal paradigm of I.M.O.P. IMOP means “intent, means, opportunity, preclusion” and are the four major ingredients that make up a self defense encounter. If an attacker has the intent to do harm, the means to do it (physical power, weapon, etc), and the opportunity (same room, same street, etc) then the situation is close to self defense. However, the final piece, preclusion, is just as important. Preclusion means the victim did everything in their power to remove themselves (and loved ones if applicable) from the situation before resorting to violence.
By keeping “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” in mind during day-to-day living a martial artist will inevitably attempt to forego the ego of violence and instead seek a way to resolve/remove the situation. If the individual can properly recount the events and the steps taken to avoid the encounter he/she has a significant advantage defending their case in a court of law.
It may sound like I am a little down on modern styles, but actually my goal is to suggest the value of both. Modern styles tend to speak more openly about the law and the importance of diversifying training (scenario drills, groundwork, etc). I also believe traditional styles are unsurpassed in terms of adopting an attitude toward training that is geared toward longevity, humility, and overall wellness.
By listening to Rory Miller, an astute observer of violence and the human condition, we hear echoed thoughts from styles developed generations ago. I am encouraged that we can continue to learn and grow in a manner that accepts the reality of danger while optimizing our ability to cope with it. Let’s keep our minds open to wisdom from the past and ears open to wisdom in our modern world.
This is a great question about the relationship between hard and soft styles:
“Recently I started training in Old Yang Style T’ai Chi Ch’uan in order to add to my Okinawan Kenpo Karate background. I was wondering if there is any particular relation between hard and soft styles. Do they compliment/take away from each other, is there any historical relationship between the two, etc?”
Here’s my take on it:
Diversifying training is a very natural and organic part of martial arts growth. Being exposed to a wider variety of methods and mindset can not only fill in skillset gaps but can actually provide fresh perspective on the core art of a practitioner. It’s like seeing a sculpture from one angle for years, and then being allowed to view it from the reverse angle. Certainly you’ll gain new appreciation for the artwork.
Of course, cross training comes with inherent risks. When done sloppily, lazily, or hastily it can prohibit the practitioner from learning the new art well and negatively effect the core art.
With that in mind, let’s look at the particular situation presented by this question – mixing Yang Style Taijiquan with Okinawa Kenpo Karate.
It’s generally accepted that karate is a hard art. Hard arts are characterized by a propensity for striking, solid stancework, impact blocking, hard body development, externally focused breathing, and muscular tension for power generation. Conversely, soft arts like taijiquan feature flowing movement, soft hands, internal based breathing, and energetic striking.
The key to understanding if a “hard art” like Okinawa Kenpo and “soft art” like taijiquan has historical connection and can possibly co-mingle rests on the question: which versions are you talking about?
Dual Tracks for Taijiquan and Okinawa Kenpo
When thinking of taijiquan, most people picture the modern fitness studio version that focuses almost entirely on the meditative aspects of the practice. The movements are very slow and deliberate with a body that is as relaxed as possible throughout. This version of taijiquan is certainly healthful and can teach a person about body awareness, but it is not the complete art of taijiquan as established by it’s creators. Back in “the day”, taiji was an explosive and complex method of body development, energy transmission, and fighting technique as well as meditative practice.
For a look at more complete taijiquan, please watch this video of Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming. He provides a quick encapsulation of what taiji and external kung fu are, and at the 2:20 mark demonstrates an energetic and impactful taiji form:
As you can see, what Dr. Yang is able to do is quite a bit different than typical meditative taiji forms. His older, more complete understanding of the art begins to mix fighting technique with internal concepts.
Let’s switch gears now for a moment and look at Okinawa Kenpo, a form of karate with direct lineage from Okinawa. The founder of the style, Nakamura Shigeru, followed an interesting path throughout his karate career. He began his training while in middle school. At that time innovators like Itosu Anko and Higashionna Kanryo were just starting to bring karate out of obscurity and into mainstream Okinawan and Japanese culture. One of their objectives, inspired and supported by the Japanese government, was to integrate karate training into the Okinawan school systems. The goal was to create fitter youth with a better sense of duty, military preparedness, and Japanese organization.
Karate, as it had been done in prior generations, was not well suited for young children in large groups with limited training time. So Itosu and a handful of others set out to simplify, organize, and Japanize the process. What happened as a result was a stronger focus on linear striking, group forms, hard blocks, etc (the things we now recognize as modern karate).
After coming up through that system and gaining reputation as a skilled karateka, Nakamura decided to seek out more of his roots and learn about the classical karate that existed outside of the school system. One of his primary influences for this older style learning was a gentleman named Kuniyoshi Shinkichi, an Okinawan who had spent a significant amount of time in China learning about chuanfa and the Chinese ways. As a result, Nakamura’s karate became an interesting mix of school-era and pre-school-era karate. This dichotomy still exists in the style and is visible today when analyzing Okinawa Kenpo practitioners.
The Key to Historical Connection
When observing modern styles of karate and taijiquan it’s easy to see that the two have more differences than similarities. However, when digging deeply into the past of both styles you’ll find they come closer and closer together both in terms of execution and historical interaction. Karate’s history is speckled with Chinese influence, getting more Chinese the further back you go. While karate has always been less internal focused than taijiquan and execution of the two arts has never been identical, they do have more shared focus and technical execution than most people realize.
The Key to Technical Connection
This all begs the question: is it impossible to cross-train modern styles of karate with modern styles of taijiquan?
No. In fact, I know a number of individuals who have really benefited from experiencing the drastic difference between the two. Going from extremely hard to extremely soft (or vice-versa) can generate serious aha! moments that improve the practitioner greatly. However, large hard-soft gaps can also create confusion in both body and mind and can potentially degrade a person’s overall ability to perform when it counts. It’s a similar problem to having 100 decent self defense techniques vs 10 great ones. The body/mind/spirit never get a chance to transcend in any one particular way.
Is it possible to cross-train modern hard and soft? Yes. Is it time intensive with potential problems? Yes.
By focusing on the older methods of taijiquan and karate, a practitioner can put themselves ahead of the game by working off of connections built by generations of practitioners who shared the same goals – to create a functional system that is capable of learning from new resources while not degrading the core foundation of the art. In fact, some arts considered this pursuit of Hard+Soft central to their methodology (think Goju Ryu).
Odo Seikichi, inheritor of Okinawa Kenpo from Nakamura Shigeru, was a brilliant proponent of this method of martial development.
You wouldn’t confuse Odo Sensei’s performance for taijiquan, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a tournament karate kata either. There is a patient, energetic cadence to his movements.
Sometimes my ideas on this subject can seem counter-intuitive. I believe cross-training is extremely valuable and necessary for martial growth, while at the same time I don’t believe the foundation of a classical art should be compromised. It sounds impossible or impractical on the surface, but once a practitioner studies a core art for long enough they understand what makes it tick and can use outside arts to unlock new perspectives on the same foundational material. That’s why beginning cross-training too soon can be dangerous, while never exploring new ideas can be equally dangerous.
It’s a delicate balance that requires the utmost thought and respect. The trick is to continuously keep ego out of the equation. Resist the urge to believe that studying two or three arts has let you transcend your original art, because that mindset often means you didn’t understand your core art to begin with.