One day a student saw his Sensei punching a wooden post that had been thrust into the ground. The student inquired: "Sensei, what is it you're punching?"
The student walked over and began striking the board gingerly. He had noticed months earlier that his instructor's hands were rough around the knuckles and that his punching power was far greater than his slight frame belied. Could this simple board be the key to his power? The student had to wonder.
"Now I want you to practice on this slowly and lightly at first. In time we'll increase the impact, but I must be certain you're technique is correct."
For a month the student struck the board deligently, feeling it bend and snap back into place. He was growing more comfortable all the time. Sadly his trip to visit his Sensei was brief and soon he flew back to his home town. Motivated and confident, the student set out to construct his own makiwara. His Sensei had given him a few tips on construction, so he felt ready.
Wandering the aisles of the local hardware store, the student noticed a similar looking board in both length and width. However, next to it was a sturdy and thick piece of oak. Certainly, the student concluded, that if the thin board had succesfully developed his Sensei's striking power that a thicker and more durable board would elicit even better results!
He bought the thick oak and planted it firmly in his backyard. Later, finding the outdoor makiwara a bit inconvenient, he decided to secure a thin foam pad to his concrete basement walls and strike that instead.
Unfortunately the student's Sensei never visited his home dojo and failed to inquire about the specifics of his makiwara practice. Perhaps such an intervention could have helped avoid the severe damage and arthritis the student would experience in later years.
More is a Tempting Proposition
The previous story is entirely fictional, however it might as well be true considering the amount of martial artists who have suffered in a similar way. Makiwara training is not inherently dangerous and can be executed safely. However, it is easily abused for the sake of quicker or more significant short term results.
The fictional student saw what his instructor had done and came to a natural conclusion that if he were to do more/harder/longer he would experience better results. This is a tempting mindset but can be very dangerous.
The classical martial arts were developed over decades (sometimes centuries) of careful analysis and adjustment. As times changed so did the specific needs of practitioners, so the arts continued to grow and evolve. Good classical arts, ones that helped practitioners defend themselves without damaging them in the process, eventually developed. Unfortunately, no matter how far back in time you look, the struggle of patience vs results and ego has always existed and tugged on exponents.
More Examples of More
Excessive makiwara training isn't the only way we as practitioners can upset proper training balance. Consider the following hypothetical scenarios:
- A teacher decides to enlogate stances so as to develop the leg muscles of students. The next generation decides that if long stances are good, even longer stances must be better. So long in fact that perhaps each student's belt should touch the ground when settling into stance.
- A student notices a fine flow that his teacher executes during freestyle practice. The student decides that flowing technique is clearly the best and sets out to eliminate all hard, impactful and linear technique.
- A practitioner attends a seminar with a known vital point fighting expert. Amazed by the effectiveness of the vital point techniques, he shifts his entire study and marketing efforts to the propogation of vital points. He decides that there must be even more to it and creates a tangled web of fact and fiction surrounding the "energy" of the arts.
- A skilled kata exponent discovers the existence of tuite and the reailty that kata can contain more than just striking. She then decides that the true application of each kata is an elaborate series of joint locks and grappling maneuvers and focuses purely on these ideas.
- After a few years of study a student realizes that his teacher has studied both a hard Japanese art and a modern style of boxing. He decides that since cross training two styles is beneficial he would study five styles, combine them, and name his own art.
These are fictional situations like the story told above, but some of them may sound familiar and ring true to your experience.
Awareness as the Solution
The trick to managing "more" is realizing that it can exist in your school and in between your ears. It has the power to affect any of us (myself included). When coming up through the ranks of Okinawa Kenpo, I was inundated with a wide variety of empty hand and kobudo kata. At certain points I distinctly remember focusing on the next set of kata I needed for testing to the exclusion of all other matters. In order to progress through kyu ranks and acquire the more "advanced" kata I fell victim to "more".
Eventually I realized what I was doing and was able to pull myself out of that collector's cycle. Even now I frequently ask myself: Where is my focus? Have I become too obsessed with a single aspect of training?
More vs Specialization
An important distinction is that "more" is not the same thing as training deligently or finding a specialty. For example, if a teacher were to decide that body conditioning was important to her and thus her students, it's logical and understandable for her to incorporate frequent conditioning drills. But if she obsesses over drills and methods that sacrifice mobility, technique, and even personal health all for the sake of increasing body hardness then she would have committed an error of disharmony in training.
When observing your art and your methods of training it's important to consider both diminishing returns and off-balance practice methods. Sometimes in your established art you'll come to notice things that help you early on but eventually become a hinderance. At those times you can explore ways to improve your technique without forgetting the value those initial methods brought.
A teacher's job is even harder, as the temptation to change things can be strong. Well meaning instructors often wish to increase the speed of student development or cut to the "no nonsense, nitty gritty harcore stuff" that took them years to figure out. Of course, they are unwittingly discarding things of high value that can ultimately result in not just a well balanced martial artist, but a deligent and humble person as well.
Good classical training is diverse and not readily understood at a glance. It challenges each student to obey faithfully and keep the system true to its roots while at the same time thinking independently and finding balance. Such a mental and physical struggle as in one of the most subtle yet lasting benefits of the old ways.
Thanks for dropping in! I've got some interesting news – IkigaiWay will be moving to Colorado. Actually…the website is staying right here but I will be moving.
This is a big change for me as I am a born and bred Pennsylvanian. I've visited Colorado multiple times, but planning the full time move has been a complex and educational process. Over the next two weeks I'll be packing up what remains of my belongings, driving out, and settling near the mountains in an area just south of Denver.
While I still love Pennsylvania (my immediate and martial families are here), opportunities for my significant other to attend grad school and work in her field are just too tempting to pass up. We'll head back east in 2-3 years, but for now we're westward bound.
The Martial Plan
One of the tricky (but exciting) things about this move is figuring out how I'm going to approach training and teaching. I plan on visiting a bunch of nearby schools just to get a sense of the local flavor and see what's happening. I'd also like to broaden my experience with arts I have little experience in (perhaps bjj, qigong, kung fu…who knows?).
I'll then have to decide if I want to start my own program fresh or work as an adjunct program with a nearby school. If I start my own program I'll be able to teach my full curriculum of Okinawa Kenpo Karate, Classical Kobudo, Toide, Swordsmanship, etc. If I work with a local school I can offer whatever doesn't interfere with their main program.
I'd also like to start up a series of seminars. Seminars are a great way to share pieces of information and cultivate cross exposure of styles and experiences. They're also not too difficult to execute and can range in size from multi-school events to single dojo visits.
I've gotten to train with some great individuals over the years, and they've been generous with their knowledge. I've only extracted a small fraction during my time, but I'm still motivated to share the classical ways as much as I can. My curriculum will take shape pulling from the following material:
Weapons Conflict Forms: Bo vs Bo, Bo vs Tonfa, Bo vs Sai, Bo vs Kama, Bo vs Tinbe Rochin
Japanese Budo: Iai forms, sword vs kobudo, weapons fighting, budo mindset
Mental Aspects: Okinawan culture, mindset of learning, martial science vs martial art, martial arts writing, self defense awareness, wellness
Are You In The Area?
For most of you these little life updates are just for fun, but if you live in Colorado or one of the adjoining states we might be able to plan something cool together! Reach out and tell me about yourself and your school, and how I might help:
Keep an eye out for more updates as the program evolves. I look forward to meeting some Western artists and contributing to the martial culture in whatever way I can.
Secrecy is a long standing tradition in the martial arts. When you analyze how most arts developed, it's easy to understand why.
Take kenjutsu (sword arts) of the Samurai for example. A kenjutsu headmaster was in charge of training his disciples with the deadliest skills he could. Those men would then take their techniques to the battlefield and fight for their daimyo. Unfortunately, during the Warring States Period, backstabbing and side switching was so common it was almost unremarkable. The daimyo changed allegiances depending on what elevated their status or saved them from annihilation. They also intermarried among clans, which shifted the power of alliances. The Samurai were often doomed to follow along, even fighting against clans they once considered allies.
These switches could happen in a hurry, even in the middle of a war. The outcome of one of the most famous battles in Japanese history, the Battle of Sekigahara, was significantly influenced by a few properly persuaded commanders right before the battle took place.
Imagine now if a skilled kenjutsu instructor was wide open with his teachings, sharing all he knew with anyone who came to him. How soon would that information be used against him?
This secretive behavior persisted even after the Samurai were less needed on the battlefield. Sword schools transitioned from focus on large battles to more individual development. It was at this time musha shugyo became more popular. Roaming Samurai desired to test their skills against headmasters and make a name for themselves. If a headmaster was loose with his knowledge and word of his tactics got out, it could mean an early demise.
Karate and kobudo also posses a history of secrecy. After the invasion of the Satsuma warriors, quite a bit of tode and kobujutsu training was conducted away from prying eyes. The Satsuma had roving metsuke (armed informants) who would be all too happy too report or outright extinguish suspicious behavior.
It wasn't just threat of death that kept the lips of instructor's tightly sealed. Both Japan and Okinawa developed under Confucian philosophy. In Confucianism, there is little tolerance for questioning of those in higher stations of respect than oneself. Further, it is expected of seniors to maintain a certain level of aloofness above those below them. The result was a lot of show with little tell.
Our modern era has it's own excuses for secrecy. Luckily the amount of "roving fighters" has gone down (but not disappeared thanks to the everpresence of ego), so it's not a particular need for tactical secrecy that keeps teachers quiet. More often than not, it is a need to retain students. If a modern teacher with limited skillset teaches everything they know, then students will inevitably grow tired of the training. Some may have the natural ability to surpass the teacher and go beyond their lessons, but then the instructor may become concerned about the student opening a school nearby and taking students away (or just becoming better, which hurts the ego). One safe bet to keep students interested and at a comparatively low skill level is to institute varying degrees of witholdance and secrecy.
The Wayward Student
There's one reason for concealment that we haven't discussed, and it's perhaps the most important. Whether in the early days of karate or today in a modern dojo, the possibility of "wayward students" exists. Despite a teacher's experience and intuition, some people are capable of hiding what's in their hearts. On the surface a student might seem dedicated and cautious and honorable, but deep down they could be manipulative and devious. Some of the most important martial artists in recorded history have fallen prey to charasmatic "disciples" who have siphoned power and influence from them.
One or two of these deep burns is enough to make any teacher pack his/her belt away for awhile.
Aside from the political aspects, teaching a wayward student the most debilitating, deadly, and effective aspects of an art is not only regrettable but dangerous to society as a whole.
Truly, wouldn't it be safer just to teach the bare basics and not risk it?
Giving the Bleeding Edge
The task of finding an honorable student and helping them to higher levels is a monumental task. After getting to a certain point, the instinct and tradition of letting things "coast" is very strong. After all, it's been done that way for generations.
However, in this modern era, it is appropriate (and even vital) for teachers to draw students to the edge of their own understanding***.
Today, it is very unlikely that martial artists of the same school will ever appear on opposite sides of a battlefield. Nor is it likely they will face other martial artists who have received inside information about their tactics. Instead, students are probably going to encounter street violence. Technique foresight is not an issue; the training will work or not work based on quality, not on secrecy.
Therefore, it is the duty of an instructor to give all they can in order to help students protect themselves and their loved ones. After years of getting to know each pupil the instructor can make an educated decision about sharing deeper knowledge in the hopes the student will carry on the desired "way".
Teaching to the very edge of skill level is also critical for an instructor's growth. "Toping out" in regards to skill and knowledge while strategically keeping students at a lower level is a very effective way to never grow. If, however, a teacher actively pulls students up as far as he/she can, the teacher will then be challenged to improve even more in order to continue sharing and helping the students.
Personally speaking, a lot of new ideas and developments in my own training begin as feelings. I sense that something is coming within reach and manifesting into potential improvement. However, it isn't until I attempt to verbalize and demonstrate what I'm thinking that it takes ahold in my own skillset and becomes available to me in a more complete way.
This very blog post is part of that process. If I don't truly understand it, then I can't help others understand it. So in order for me to understand it, you have to understand it.
See, now you know all my secrets! (or do you??).
***(please keep in mind I write this as an instructor with limited understanding and experience. Kyoshi and Hanshi level practitioners may possess a different perspective given their experience, but I do currently believe this advice applies forever in one's training).