There really is no substitute for a quality instructor. No matter how many video tapes or books a person investigates, a good teacher is the only one who can instill the proper basics and techniques used to make a style effective. We rarely spot all the defects in our own methods, so having a keen eye watching us is critical for improvement.

Unfortunately, we can also become dependent on our instructors. When we go to class, we receive a steady stream of information and corrections designed to make us better. Much like television, it is easy to get hooked on that kind of access. Furthermore, when watching an instructor or receiving advice, it is more like passive learning rather than active. During passive learning, we aren’t challenging ourselves to discover improvements for ourselves. Therefore, we are never really following our own path, we are merely tiptoeing behind our teachers, trying vainly to step exactly where they stepped.

That is why, in addition to going to class faithfully, a martial artist must spend time by him/herself.

Here’s the top 5 reasons I think solo training is worth the time and effort:

5. Resolving Stress

Like most people, I get those days where I am stressed out. Rough day at work, car troubles, rude waiter…whatever the cause, there are just times when the fuse is short. It’s during these times that training on your own can have miraculous effects. Frustration and anxiety are energetic emotions, and kata/bag training serves as an excellent means for giving those tensions an outlet.

Anger driven emotions aren’t the only things that can be resolved; also consider uneasiness, restlessness, and depression. These are states that drain energy and life out of a person. Kata training (both dynamic kata and breathing kata) serve to build spirit and resilience in the practitioner. Often times getting back to the most basic elements of living – breathing and movement – help to put extraneous matters into perspective.

4. Confronting Inadequacies

One of the scariest things about martial arts training is confronting all of that which we don’t know. Many practitioners prefer never to look it in the eye; instead, they focus on proclaiming their excellence in what they do know.

When training alone, you’ll be confronted with this decision as well – will you just run your kata pattern a couple of times, and then hit the bags? Will you focus only on making changes that will help you win trophies?

Or will you take that deep plunge, asking who, what, when, where, and why for every movement?

3. Internal Discussion

Because of all the great info you are receiving in normal martial arts class, there is little time for internal discussion. Integrating corrections and new techniques is hard enough! When you’re alone, you can allow your mind to wander. You can take the time to ask yourself questions.

One of the highest goals of martial arts training is to achieve mushin, or a state of no mind. In mushin, reaction and instinct are in command. The mushin of a trained karateka can only be achieved after martial matters have been internally argued to complete death. Much like in zen satori, the mind just gives up, and all that’s left is technique melded with instinct!

2. Experimentation

Experiment too much in class, and you’re likely to get a raised eyebrow from your instructor. Think about it – how can he/she be sure that you’re experimenting in a growth-productive manner, instead of just screwing up? Experimenting with technique and body movement on your own is an embarrassment-free alternative.

Of course, this one comes with a caveat – you have to be careful your experimentation doesn’t lead you away from the core principles of your style. The hardest thing to break in the martial arts is a bad habit…so don’t get yourself locked into one if you don’t have to.

1. Developing Questions

My final point here I recommend to you with trumpets blowing in the background, arms flailing, and anything else that gets your attention. All too often, in a state of apathy, practitioners expect their instructors to deliver grand martial secrets to them. One day, they suspect, sensei will unsheathe a scroll; and on that scroll will lay the shadowy death touches they’ve been longing for.

I hate to burst bubbles (that’s not true), but the way to success is a bit less dramatic. Basically, you just have to ask the right questions. This is a remarkable, built-in function of the martial arts. You can’t grow as a martial artist until you ask the right questions to elicit interesting and provocative responses from your instructors, and you can’t ask the right questions until you’ve put in exhaustive efforts into your training.

Pretty clever stuff, huh?

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One final note – training alone in different locations can have different effects. Training alone in the home can serve to comfort you with familiar surroundings…but it can also lead to easy distraction. If possible, secure some alone time in the dojo. A dojo has an innate sense of purpose and helps keep you focused. Furthermore, the quiet watches of the dojo help connect you with the true spirit of your martial art.

Finally, if you have the means, train outside with nature.