**note: this is an abbreviated ‘big picture’ discussion of a very expansive topic. Forgive the necessary timeline jumps and generalizations used to paint the broader picture.**
Hierarchy is a polarizing mechanism. When it’s working fair and properly, individuals can benefit. When it is corrupted or run incompetently, everybody suffers (except perhaps those at the top). Hierarchy is a powerful tool, and in the martial arts, it is thrust into the hands of people who may or may not deserve it.
In many modern countries a high premium is placed on individual freedoms. Very rarely do we quietly tolerate anything that impedes our rights as citizens. The military, out of need for cohesion and order, is a rare example of effective hierarchy in modern times. Of course there are a myriad of other hierarchies in our lives, including work, family, school, etc., but none of those are as staunch and unyielding as the military.
In the midst of a thousand civilian activities and pastimes lies the martial arts. No basketball coach or yoga teacher holds the same authority and power over subordinates as the martial arts Sensei. Ironically, no coach or teacher could get away with the same lack of credentials and know-how as a slick, philandering ‘Master’ (if a basketball coach can’t win, they’ll be replaced. If a yoga instructor can’t hold a position, they’ll be replaced. If a martial arts instructor can’t defend him/herself or even perform a technique properly, they can still get by with fast talk or big claims).
The use and abuse of the exceedingly strong civilian hierarchy utilized by the martial arts has a long and complex history.
Where Martial Arts Hierarchy Came From
As it stands today, the hierarchy in martial arts stems from two predominant places. The first of which is traditional eastern culture. Born from a mixture of beliefs, but based most dominantly out of Confucianism, the Asian people have always placed high value on order and levels of authority. As one Sensei once joked to me with tongue-in-cheek, “if the Japanese saw three piles of dirt, they would name one Renshi dirt, one Kyoshi dirt, and one Hanshi dirt.”
The order of Asian society has influenced everything they do, from family life to dojo life. This structure has led to some amazing advances in their societies, and some behavior that is often seen as confusing and even disturbing (i.e. Seppuku and kamikaze pilots).
The Okinawans, while less militaristic in their day-to-day hierarchies, also put great emphasis on order, especially in regards to families, instructors, and community status.
As westerners came to learn the martial arts, they inherently absorbed the methods and mindsets of their teachers. This was compounded by the simple fact that many of the early western students were military personnel looking to improve their odds of survival in combat.
As mentioned earlier, the military is one of the most effective and inflexible modern day hierarchies. When young people were molded in that system, they absorbed the hierarchical aspects of military training. Being sharp and at-attention made sense to them, and not questioning what their instructors said or did was second nature.
When those early instructors came back to their home countries and started their own dojos, they built schools using the lens they knew best – strict, unyielding hierarchy.
How Hierarchy Came To Be What It Is
The example of karate hierarchy is very intriguing and a bit unique. Most scholars and historians believe that karate was developed as a civilian art, used by the Royal Court Guard (think Motobu Udundi), military police, and civilians. In fact it is commonly believed that one of karate’s greatest progenitors, Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura, was in charge of the court guard at one point in his life.
Although the background of karate is diverse, it was not intended SPECIFICALLY for battlefield use. Instead it was taught down family lines and within tight knit circles of friends and relatives. The teaching, despite what we see in a lot of modern dojo, was not extremely regimented. There were no excessive amounts of ceremony. In fact, since the learning groups were so small, they often started and stopped in completely unstructured ways and utilized subtle teacher/student etiquette.
However, as with other martial arts, many of the westerners that first learned karate were military folk. When they brought karate back with them, they took the techniques they learned from their Sensei and the organizational structure they learned from the military and melded them together. Thus was born the crisp, at-attention, BOW TO YOUR SENSEI type of mindset that has become prevalent throughout some martial arts circles (for better or worse).
As is the way in martial arts, students who learn a brand of hierarchy, whether it be relaxed or strict, tend to continue that tradition.
The Benefits of Martial Arts Hierarchy
Regardless of the specific level of strictness in a given dojo, there are a few concepts that seem pervasive. For example, there is always a matter of respect for seniors. Juniors in the dojo are expected to listen patiently to those ranked higher than them, and not speak belligerently to them no matter what the circumstances. This emphasis on respect is a massively positive aspect of traditional training.
Many individuals, children especially, can go through their whole lives without having to show respect to anyone. In the martial arts , however, you won’t get very far without it. Respect is one of the most crucial personality traits when it comes to keeping an open mind and understanding other people.
A sister benefit to respect is discipline. Although discipline takes a very visceral form in the martial arts dojo (bowing, standing still, listening quietly, etc) it becomes more and more valuable in a person’s daily life. Discipline in the dojo translates to self discipline, and self discipline is a cornerstone to personal success.
The hierarchy of a dojo can often be a microcosm for what people can expect in the real world. Students who learn the intricacies of handling superiors, subordinates, and ‘equals’ can often translate those skills into the workplace and home environments.
The hierarchy of a dojo can also provide serious motivation for students to achieve. The desire to ‘move up the ladder’ and command the presence and respect that seniors get can become palpable, and students are sometimes able to push themselves beyond what they thought was attainable. It is a goal-setting ideal that can teach people to move beyond their perceived limits and take charge of their own destiny.
The Pitfalls of Martial Arts Hierarchy
The benefits discussed can be perverted more easily than you might suspect. The desire for respect can often lead to a lust for power. Vanity and self-importance are traits not uncommon in martial arts ‘masters’ who wield their position like a club.
The ability to start a dojo and place people underneath you is astoundingly easy. Literally anyone can do it. Therefore, people that have no outlet for their self-aggrandizement often use martial arts to satisfy their needs.
Command, power, and influence are highly addictive ‘substances’. Just like John Kreese of the Cobra Kai in the picture above, some instructors enjoy seeing a little army consisting of versions of themself, ready to listen, follow, and take commands.
If you doubt the addictive powers of martial arts achievement, observe the gaining of rank, trophies, certificates of mastery, and dozens of black belts by some practitioners. Although these accolades are occasionally well deserved, often they are used to fuel the ego.
You’ll notice that when describing the serious issues inside the arts I didn’t say “All strict hierarchies are bad, and all loose hierarchies are good”. If only it were that simple. There are strict hierarchies that are extremely ethical and fair, and some loose hierarchies that are very devious and unscrupulous. It really comes down to how the teacher chooses to wield his/her authority and how juniors choose to operate inside of a given system (there are examples of ethical dojo heads who had to leave power in the hands of their subordinates, who then abused that power).
We often say in the martial arts that one should maintain a beginner’s mindset when learning, the goal of which is to avoid the ‘expert’s malaise’ that lulls people into a lack of growth. Another aspect of the beginner’s mind is to remember what it is like to be the low man on the totem pole. To recall the positive sensations when higher-ups took notice of your achievements and gave you valuable criticism, and the negative sensations of when you felt wronged and slighted.
As you become more and more powerful in the arts, it is critical to use that power wisely. Martial arts instructors are not gurus and they are not therapists; they are not financial counselors and they are not generals. But, when done properly, they can be a source of inspiration and a guiding light to help students achieve their goals and learn the techniques and traditions that have benefited practitioners for generations.
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This is a practical post for readers in various parts of their martial arts careers. One question that seems to come up a lot is “what kind of uniform should I get? What the heck is a 12 ounce gi??”
People often develop love/hate relationships with different brands of uniforms and different weights of uniforms. Depending on who you ask, and what your intentions are, the best gi for you might change. For beginners, it’s basically just a big mess of colored pajamas.
Let’s start off by examining some of the differences you might find in gi styles.
As you’ve probably already guessed, “gi” is the Japanese word for uniform. In tae kwon do they use the word “dobok”. But, in general, they are the same thing. All uniforms consist of two major parts, the jacket (uwagi) and the pants (zuban).
The jacket has two open flaps in the front that are cross tied – first the right flap to inside left, and the left flap to outside right. It’s important to note that karate and tae kwon do uniforms have these straps as jujutsu and judo uniforms do not. This is because judo and jujutsu feature a lot of grappling, pulling, and twisting, and the straps of a normal karate uniform would very quickly get yanked off.
Another difference you’ll notice is the way the pants are secured. The more “traditional” uniforms have drawstring ties where a strap is threaded through the top of the pants and is pulled tight and then tied together. Some of the newer style uniforms have elastic around the waist with a shoestring tie like normal workout pants. Generally speaking, neither style is particularly frowned upon, even in traditional dojo.
When it comes to karate, you’ll have two main colors to deal with: white and black. White is the most prominent and is acceptable in almost every dojo. Black is also widely used and has traditional roots too. Anything beyond those two basic styles is considered more modern and very dojo-specific. If you wish to join a dojo it’s important to note what rules and regulations they abide by.
Tae kwon do uniforms tend to be either plain or with a colored collar. Jujutsu and judo tend to use white or blue, with black as a lesser used color. Arts such as aikido and kenjutsu also utilize a hakama, which is the baggy pleated pants you might see Samurai sport in the movies.
Perhaps one of the trickiest things to do when shopping for a gi is decide what weight to get. The measuring system (which is ounces) is not readily understandable, and it takes tactile experience to know which weight you want. That being said, here are some tips for when you are deciding.
- 8 Ounce – 8 ounce uniforms are also called ‘student’ uniforms because they are inexpensive and easy for dojo owners to keep stocked. These are the lightest available and feel closest to natural cotton clothing. Wearing a martial arts uniform for the first time is a weird experience and you probably won’t feel too comfortable or natural. Even though these are light, they’ll feel clunky at first. 8 ouncers have other uses as well. Even experienced practitioners use 8 ounce when they need something light and airy for the summer, or if they are participating in a sweat-inducing gasshuku.
- 10 Ounce - 10 ounce is a great day-to-day weight. For people who feel as if they need a little more response and ‘feel’ from a uniform but still don’t want to feel stifled, 10 ounce is a good choice. As practitioners gain experience, they are expected to generate snap and pop from their gi. This came to pass as instructors started to use the snap as a barometer of kime, or martial arts focus.
- 12 Ounce - 12 ounce is a nice choice for people who need responsiveness in their gi. For individuals looking to compete in tournaments, especially in kata, this is fine way to go. When ironed and pressed properly, 12 ouncers look very sharp and proper. Many practitioners keep a 12 ounce around for official events or gatherings.
- 14 Ounce - 14 ounce is the heaviest available uniform (in general) and is considered the ‘heavyweight gi’. 14 ounce gis are the most responsive of all, but can also suffer from the cardboard effect if the material is not of high quality or washed properly. good heavyweight uniforms are often 100% cotton as this helps reduce stiffness. 14 ouncers have serious feel and character, and are great for official events. They also produce excellent snap in techniques.
The price of uniforms varies greatly. Lightweight gi are generally cheaper (and sometimes downright cheap). When you get into the heavier weights you can range in price from $80 to $300. The brand you choose will have a big effect on the price tag. The major differences in regards to brands is often how stiff they are and how well they lay on the body. You’ll also notice differences in the amount of stitching, and how quickly the gi wears out.
Final Thoughts on Gi Choice
When you are shopping around, one of the best things to do is find people that wear different brands. Ask them how they like the fit and material, and if you are feeling really froggy, ask them if you can try it on.
When it comes to getting a uniform that is right for you, tactile experience is the highest priority. Figure out what you’re looking for, do some brand research, and find the best match!
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National Geographic began a study in the early 1970’s wherein they identified global “blue zones”. Blue zones are specific locations that have societies of people that are longer lived, healthier, and more active into old age than the rest of the world.
Recently Dan Buettner, an American explorer and author, created a presentation discussing his research into the National Geographic blue zones. One of the locations he found most intriguing and noteworthy was the small island of Okinawa.
Watch this video as Mr. Buettner discusses his findings on why he believes the Okinawans and a handful of other cultures are so special.
There are multiple locations around the world that feature very interesting groupings of people that have achieved longevity. However, according to Mr. Bueller, Okinawa is considered “ground zero”. They have a complex social system with many built-in habits that lead to longer and healthier lives. I’d like to discuss a few of the points in the video and how they relate to the lifestyle of a martial artist.
Mr. Bueller’s Study In Relevance to Martial Arts
According to Mr. Bueller, the most important keys to longevity are:
- Eating Wisely
- Finding the Right Tribe
- Moving Naturally
- Adopting a Healthy Outlook
Within each of those categories Bueller features an Okinawan concept that achieves the desired results. Let’s look at the Okinawan habits and how they coincide with martial arts practice.
Eating Wisely – Hara Hachi Bu
Okinawans utilize “hara hachi bu”, which is the method of eating until you are 80% full. Similarly, recent western studies have shown that healthy dietary habits involve eating small meals throughout the day, and not eating excessively at any one time. The Okinawan people have found clever ways of maintaining this practice, such as eating off of smaller plates.
For martial artists, filling up the “fuel tank” with proper nutrients is critical to good study. One of the worst contributions Americans (and perhaps westerners in general) have given to the arts is the ‘master’ who is extremely rotund. Many times these portly experts can barely tie their belts around their waists. You might hear pseudo-explanations about these practitioners becoming more Buddha-like in their figure, or that the eastern arts benefit from a lowered center of gravity, but that’s all really fancy ways of avoiding the truth.
The Okinawan diet is heavy in fish, fruits, and vegetables, including the bitter and scary looking Goya:
This kind of diet has helped cultures around the world obtain and retain good health. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that some western conveniences like McDonald’s are slowly starting to creep onto Okinawa, especially in the southern regions. We will have to watch carefully how the longevity and quality-of-life numbers are effected by these changes (some senior karateka I’ve spoken to believe it is already having an effect).
Right Tribe – Moai
The Okinawans have a built-in social network of extremely tight-knit proportions. As technology increases all across the globe, humans are achieving a brand new level of social interaction. Will these online communities simulate the positive effects of Moai, or is something critical missing? We can’t be certain yet.
One thing that is certain is the kind of community that can be built in traditional dojos and study groups. As martial artists grow and train, they become closer and closer. If the group is made up of good people, they can also rely on each other and trust each other.
Moving Naturally – Physical Activity
This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of training. The physical activity in martial arts is extremely healthy as it works the whole body. While weight lifting and running both have very important purposes, activities like kata are demanding on every muscle group in the body. One can get a cardio workout and a tension-muscle workout, not to mention improved balance, fast and slow twitch muscle endurance, and much more.
The “moving naturally” aspect of Bueller’s speech is something I find very interesting. Although some arts like karate and tae kwon do appear to move practitioners toward ‘unnatural’ stances, ultimately they are designed to teach a person how to optimally distribute weight and move from one beneficial position to another. And, with enough practice, they are to be practiced naturally. Other arts, like aikido and tai chi chuan, place an even stronger emphasis on natural body.
Healthy Outlook – Ikigai
One of the biggest revolutions in thought in our time is the changing of emphasis from physical health to mental health in connection to longevity. The effects of negative stress and “inflammation” are cited more and more frequently as the cause of early death and lowered quality of life. One of the most important methods for counteracting that is ikigai, a sense of purpose.
Of course, not every purpose is ikigai. It’s quite possible to be driven and dedicated but without experiencing the true nature of ikigai. Ikigai is something that brings joy and contentment. It fills a person with resolve and a sense of satisfaction in what they are doing. Most of all, it brings happiness. I contend, as I always have here on this website, that martial arts can be that for some people. Or, at the very least, give them the physical and mental tools to find an ikigai in there life, and keep them active enough to continue experiencing it.
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