Hard work has always gone hand in hand with martial arts training. In fact, the term “Kung Fu” literally means “hard work”, with the term “Wushu” being a more accurate name for the Chinese art studied today.
Effort put into the martial arts often pays dividends that surprise people. A release of endorphins and natural stress relief are two common byproducts that leave practitioners thinking ‘yea, I could do this every week!’ Many teachers run rigorous sessions (especially at Gasshuku) in order to test the will and spirit of students, bringing them together and promoting strength of character.
So evident are the benefits of sweating and working out that sometimes we forget to do anything else.
The Cult of Sweat
Some people are naturally sweaty and start perspiring during the walk from the porch to the car. They can’t help it and it really has little bearing on their level of endurance. Even still, there seems to be a cult of sweat, as if the salty liquid were knowledge itself pouring out of the body.
The following individual, Ernie-San, is a respectable martial artist as far as I can tell. He has traveled to Okinawa for Gasshuku and in order to protect the lessons taught through his style he opts not to record the actual training. He did, however, record his badge of honor:
His sense of humor is fun and all that, but you can really tell that sweat is worth more than currency to him. I wonder – did Ernie-San get to probe the deep understanding and complex knowledge of the instructors, or did he spend most of his time busting his butt, site-seeing, and then going home.
Many times Okinawan instructors will give western students what they want – a rigorous run-through, more material, and a certificate of whatever (not saying this is Ernie-San’s case, just a general truth). It simply isn’t worth the instructor’s time to show the cultural details and deep subtleties that take long hours of contemplation and investigation. It’s much easier to make visitor’s sweat, work kata/basics/drills, and send them on their way.
Workout, Workout, Think About It
Basics are the key to any quality martial artist. Constant routine and repetition can make a person ‘brilliant at the basics’, as Bill Hayes Sensei likes to say. Drills, kihon, kata, bag work, etc drive much of martial arts training, no matter what style. Unfortunately many people believe that repetition alone is going to grant them deeper martial understanding. Albert Einstein once famously defined “Insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. The same is true for martial arts.
To truly improve in significant ways, practitioners have to learn about how their body moves and how they can effect results in other people. A straight punch is just a straight punch until you learn kime. The punch changes once you learn angling. It changes again once you improve your timing. Then it needs to be combined with kyusho, tuite, grappling, etc. That’s one technique. Now think about the spectrum of a whole kata. And that’s just in karate terms; each art can be faned out in the same way.
To even begin understanding these ideas and making them a part of your subconscious/effective self, you need to turn down the sweat for a little while, quiet the noise, and “listen”. Listen to techniques, your body, the opponent’s body, and how it all interacts.
How Thinking Can Go Awry
As I said earlier, the workout trap is all too enticing for practitioners. But the same goes for teachers. It’s much easier to run a class where you automate students through kata, bag work, and kihon rather than figuring out ways to make each one actively think and assess themselves.
Unfortunately too much ‘thinking’ can be a bad thing. An ‘armchair sensei’ is one who can quote you techniques, vital points, history, and stories of personal prowess but never seem to get off their can to actually do some hard work.
Armchair instructors and practitioners (and some soft stylists who rely too much on theory) run into a common problem – a brush with tough reality. Having trained with a lot of people bigger, tougher, and better than me, I can tell you that there is no magic bullet or amount of practice with imaginary foes that can prepare you for the actual striking and manipulating of a resistance opponent.
No bones about it – a strong body with good basics is key, and to get that you have to work hard.
A little Yin With a Little Yang
You gotta have both sweat and contemplation. You need times where you can run your techniques, but also an opportunity to work slowly and outside the normal confines of your style’s structure. You have to take off the reigns once in awhile and get attacked in unexpected ways to see how your body will handle itself (and I don’t mean sparring, which is a very structured event). You need to feel subtle movements in your opponent so you can improve your senses and natural reactions.
Black Belts Don’t Sweat
We have a joke in our dojo that ‘black belts don’t sweat’. It essentially began because my instructor Rick Zondlo and I are not naturally sweaty people. But what the joke really came to mean is that good technique happens when you are relaxed and ready, not tense or anxious.
When the body is in a tense state emotionally or physically it sweats; and as we established earlier, sweating is something many people desire in their training. Ultimately these practitioners end up cementing bad habits that promote physical and emotional tension rather than eliminating it! Furthermore, in order to work more muscle groups and get the whole body into the act, they tend to use more exaggerated actions than is necessary. So an inside block turns into a deep stanced, arm swinging event rather than a minute body shift and subtle arm movement (breathing and tension kata notwithstanding of course).
Focus is often misused during these workout states as well. The practitioner is thinking about the ‘good burn’ they are feeling and how soaked their sweat rag is rather than trying to eliminate wasteful portions of technique (not to mention the prideful ‘I drank X amount of water today’ conversation that always seems to follow).
A prime example of the relaxed body in action takes place during sparring. Have you ever met an older expert who can spar for an hour only to come away with a moist forehead, rather than being hunched over, panting and wheezing? These are individuals who have learned to use their body naturally, only exploding during techniques when the moment is right. Good distancing, angling, and control of centerline eliminates any sweat-inducing flailing.
There is an old saying that goes: ‘don’t work harder, work smarter’. For the martial arts, I would amend that to read: ‘don’t just work harder, also work smarter’.
Find people in your dojo who have good ego control and work techniques slowly, under control, and with no padding. Figure out ways to induce results with a minimum of exertion on your part. Don’t settle for compliant results (especially within arts like aikido that require good ukes); give yourself a chance to fail and work until you can do good technique on tough opponents that are behaving in ways not predictable to you.
Sweat itself isn’t a problem – it’s when sweat (and in a broader sense the workout mindset) becomes more important than the exploration of the arts themselves.
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I’d like to focus this post on another one of the weapons of Okinawan Kobudo. The kuwa, or hoe, is a very common and unremarkable piece of equipment. In fact, almost every agrarian society developed a version of the hoe. It’s that level of acceptance in standard society that makes it such a great tool for self defense. Even in old Okinawa a sword or spear would draw sidelong looks from both neighbors and Japanese guard…but a hoe was completely natural and understood.
Anatomy of a Kuwa
This is a picture of my kuwa, generously constructed for me by my instructor Rick Zondlo. For those of you who love details, I included the names of the parts above (impress your friends at parties). If you’d like to buy your own kuwa, find handles here and blades here.
When trying to pronounce the name of the handle “e”, say it as “ehh” and not “ee”. The rest of the parts follow suit (ehh-jee-ree, ehh-gah-she-rah, koo-wah-bah).
Using the Kuwa
When people first think about using the kuwa, they usually imagine a big gashing motion with the blade edge. It would seem at first glance that this is the most devastating move for the weapon. While that is indeed an option, there are actually more dynamic tactics you can utilize.
First of all, the egashira (top end) can be used for thrusting purposes. As opposed to relying purely on large swinging motions, the kuwa can be prepped almost like a bo and thrust forward at extremely quick velocity. Due to its relatively small size, the egashira can also be pulled back quickly and “reloaded” for another thrust.
The reverse end of the egashira (as in, the side opposite the cutting hoe blade), is also utilized. Swinging motions with this part of the kuwa result in blunt trauma. This may seem less effective than a full-on blade strike, but it also allows for quick follow-up techniques. If there are multiple opponents, or reasons to hit one opponent more than once, it is critical not to get the blade stuck or snagged in the opponent’s clothes, body, etc.
The ejiri (butt end) is an equally important aspect of kuwa technique. If you have a hoe with a thick metal blade plate, it can be fairly hefty at the top. This results in slower movements, especially when compared to a perfectly balanced weapon like a sword. In order to compensate for that disadvantage, one can use the ejiri as the initial blocking and striking aspect, and then follow up with a finishing technique with the solid front end.
The ejiri can be manipulated very quickly. When holding a kuwa with the ejiri facing your opponent and the heavy metal end to the rear, the metal actually serves as a fulcrum and helps increase the speed and dynamics of the ejiri. What results is a tool that can keep pace even with fast weapons, but can then follow up with punishing, heavy blows.
Here is a look at a rare kuwa kata called kue no di. As far as I know, this is the only officially established kuwa kata still practiced:
You’ll notice a great variety of strikes used, and also some scenarios where dirt is being thrown. Remember, Okinawan self defense was never designed to play by a set of rules! Dirt, sand, and sun in the opponent’s eyes are all very viable tactics.
When it comes to handling the kuwa itself, the hand position is either sword style or thrust style. In sword style, the hands are both toward the bottom end, about two hands width apart. In thrust style, one hand is toward the top, the other at the bottom.
Now let’s take a look at the kuwa in action. For this I will be recruiting the help of Nishiuchi Sensei, as he has a great video on the topic (note: Nishiuchi Sensei’s partner has excellent hair and acting ability):
You’ll’ notice that when using the kuwa Nishiuchi Sensei initially concerns himself with controlling centerline. He’ll use small circles and blocks to clear a path to strike. After that “opener” he will come in with bigger arcing attacks. This is a key concept for the use of kuwa.
When you first start using kuwa, you are probably going to be caught off guard by how bulky the top end feels. The harder you swing, the harder it wants to drag your body weight with it. After awhile though it becomes less of a burden and you open up to the idea of using the ejiri.
If you’ve got a garden and understanding neighbors, maybe it’s time to start integrating a little technique! Show those tomatoes you mean business.
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I used to be a debunker. It was an attempt at establishing some form of self identity. When I saw a Taekwondo fighter doing high kicks I would think to myself: “see that’s not practical for the street. His groin is open and he might slip.” Debunked. Next.
If I saw someone who liked to go to the ground I would assure myself: “see that’s a mistake because there might be other bad guys. You never want to go to the ground if you can avoid it. Besides, that statistic about 90% of all fights going to the ground is greatly exaggerated.” Debunked. I win.
Even though my analysis had merit, I was using it as an excuse to close my mind. I was scared of the vastness and complexity of the martial arts. Instead of trying to learn about people and styles that I had no experience in, I simply chose to dismiss them.
In our martial training, there is a great fog to wade through. The fog is there because we each have to develop as individuals and complete artists. Some people choose not to explore, and decide simply to build walls around themselves based on the limited knowledge they have. This shields them from the uncertainty and scope of martial exploration. A few years ago I started constructing my walls, but I’d like to explain how I ultimately decided to tear them down (and how you can too).
Despite the closed-mindedness I displayed in previous years, I’m not angry at myself. I was young both in age and experience and it is impossible to understand the martial arts in a broad sense early on. In fact, comprehending how all the martial arts work together is one of the great ongoing challenges that I don’t think I’ll ever truly lock down.
I’m not angry because I was able to eventually turn my debunking habits into healthy learning (which we will slowly define). A couple of factors helped me turn that corner. First, I took on a full time teaching role at a young age. Just as my walls started to go up, I was forced to discuss concepts with students much more world experienced than me. All of my concrete solutions had to stand up to their inquiries and stories about how real violence happened to them. Since I was young, I didn’t have all the answers already planned out, as opposed to someone well entrenched in their box.
Second, I was an avid reader. Even though I started as most people do with pop culture books and movies (Enter the Dragon, The Princess Bride, etc), I quickly switched over to instructional books. Some books spoke to me immediately, like “Living the Martial Way”. Other books utterly confused me, in a good way, like “Book of Five Rings”.
Third, through our annual training events, I was exposed to real practitioners of different styles. I got to see (and still do get to see) top martial artists go about their business and explain their concepts. It was through one of the seminars by George Alexander and Rick Zondlo that I ultimately decided to study swordsmanship, which has been invaluable in increasing my awareness of the broader aspects of martial art technique and mindset.
Emptying the Cup
Joe Hyams tells an excellent story in his book “Zen in the Martial Arts”. I’d like to take a quick excerpt. This is a story Bruce Lee told Joe during their first training session together:
“Let me tell you a story my sifu told me. It is about the Japanese Zen master who received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. It was obvious to the master from the start of the conversation that the professor was not so much interested in learning about Zen as he was in impressing the master with his own opinions and knowledge. The master listened patiently and finally suggested they have tea. The master poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself. ‘The cup is overfull, no more will go in.’
‘Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’” – Zen in the Martial Arts
When I was debunking people, it was because my cup was full of my own opinions. True learning is allowing yourself to empty that cup and honestly listen to other people. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to blindly accept what’s given to you.
“This does not mean that Bruce prevented me from applying a critical mind to his teaching. In fact, he welcomed discussion, even argument. But when challenged too long on a point his reply was always, ‘at least empty your cup and try.’”
I still think my evaluations about taekwondo and ground fighting had merit. Kicking high DOES open up your groin, and is risky on certain surfaces. But what if you have an opponent who constantly keeps his guard down. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a devastating high technique to finish things quickly? Furthermore, who walks around on ice and slippery gravel all day?
If given the option, I wouldn’t want to take a fight to the ground. It’s risky because there might be other assailants to deal with, and room for proper ground technique is always a factor. However, sometimes you aren’t given an option. If you get bull rushed from behind and end up on the ground, no amount of straight punch practice is going to get you out of that situation.
Learning Means a Critical But Open Mind
It’s my belief that every practitioner should try to learn with an empty cup. It can be very scary to do so because the realm of martial arts is so vast. It takes decades to become competent in just one style, let along being open to other styles. There is also the risk of becoming too eclectic and ‘watering down’ your core style. This occurs when people loss the ability to separate the original intent of their style with their own personal findings (or if they are trying to make up their own system).
I believe having a core style, and being faithful to it, is critical to success. However, in my personal experience, considering outside sources has served to strengthen my good techniques and improve my bad ones along with broadening my general comprehension. Using a critical mind to assess both the valuable and not-so-valuable in other methods has actually increased my ability to spot nonsense in the arts, as opposed to making me blind to it.
Why the Walls?
Why is it so common and easy for martial artists to put up walls?
The first reason is sheer laziness. The less we have to think about other stuff the better. Why not just take what’s spoon fed to us and accept it as ‘the best’ way to do whatever?
The second is fear. Fear that years spent in training might have been a waste. That the ultimate techniques promised early on aren’t going to be delivered as neatly as advertised, and that there may have to be a starting over – an emptying of the cup.
The third is business. Many school owners are relying on profits coming in from students, so why would they bother to send those students elsewhere to learn? If they promise the moon and stars, then the student will likely stick around for awhile before getting bored and moving on (or drinking the koolaid completely and staying for the long haul).
Finally, martial arts is an absurdly political realm. People’s egos demand that they stand apart from everyone else, and that their method for doing things is unequivocally better than every other way. They simply can’t bring themselves to admit that someone else might know better. Or, if there are other practitioners who are their “enemies”, they might disparage that style just to get back at the individual.
It’s messy, but you don’t have to contribute to the mess. Use an open mind toward other martial artists and respect what they have to say, even if you come to the ultimate conclusion that you don’t intend to agree with their opinions. Recognize bogus martial arts for what they are, but be careful not to dismiss foreign concepts before you’ve given them an honest shake.
Ultimately you might come to agree with something I believe – the fog is the fun part!
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