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Visitors in a Traditional Dojo

October 25, 2016 Leave a comment

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Early evening on any Monday and class is in session at a local karate dojo. There are eight to ten students in the room. Sweat is pouring and occasionally a shout cuts through the air. To the passerby the studio may look almost empty. Surely there are more students than this? The Sensei and his Senior Students (Sempai) walk through the group correcting a technique here, offering advise there. Sensei is happy. To him, this is a medium sized class. If there were very many more students he might miss something in one’s training.

 

The average on-looker judges by what they see. There is a karate school around the corner and down the street that has a class going with at least twenty students. There are a lot of children in it. They are playing games and laughing. Earlier one of the instructors was holding a hula hoop and all the kids were taking turns diving through it and landing on an over-stuffed mat. The two or three younger students in this dojo are punching and kicking a hand mitt that one of the Sempai is holding for them. Then on his command, they break away and begin working on kata (open hand forms). As they diligently work on their kata the Sensei will stop one of them every so often and make a correction on a technique. “Make your kick stronger!” “Punch to the solar plexus!” and several other commands can be heard often as the session continues.

 

After a bit Sensei shouts “Yame!” and the students cease whatever they are doing and come to attention. The teacher lines them up and calls one of his Sempai up. He then breaks one of the kata down by sets of movements and demonstrates the “bunkai” or practical applications of what they have been doing. He then tells the students to get a partner and do what he has just done. Even the children are taught the techniques and taught to use them on a partner much larger than themselves. After a bit of this he nods to his most senior student who shouts another word in Japanese and the students fall into line facing the front of the dojo. They bow. They kneel. They close their eyes and sit perfectly still for a couple of minutes. Then they do a kneeling bow to the Shomen. Sensei turns and they then perform a kneeling bow to him. They then stand coming to attention and bow to Sensei who then dismisses the class. As they head for the changing area, they pause before leaving the training floor and once again bow facing the work out area.

 

Most people who witness a traditional karate class for the first time are a little confused. They do not understand much of what they have just watched. They have come to the dojo with a preconceived idea of what is going to happen and in most cases are shocked that this school that professes to be a traditional dojo doesn’t play a lot of games with the children. They are surprised to see that the smaller students work right alongside the older, larger, stronger ones. There is a lot of bowing and a lot of words being spoken that they do not even understand. Most of them will never come back. There is no flash or glam here. There are no wildly colored uniforms. There are no hoops or bouncy balls for the children. There is only…karate.

 

Sadly, what has been forgotten (or never realized) by most people outside of the martial arts is that karate is not a game.

 

Karate is training. It is learning how to defend yourself and learning to defend yourself from attackers that are larger and stronger than you are. If Little Suzy spends her class time bouncing tennis balls off a huge round piece of brightly colored tarp with ten of her BFFs, she will never learn how to defend herself. Likewise, if Little Johnny spends his class playing Red Rover he will never grasp the concept of bunkai. If the student is never encouraged to do better, work harder, and try their best at the art they are learning, they will never grow. They will never become stronger.

 

Karate is dedication. Like the person who was checking out the class for the first time, a staggering percentage of students will take classes for a while and then become bored with the constant repetition of techniques. Every class starts the same. Bow in and do basics. Basics, basics, basics. They never comprehend that they are trying to perfect a technique. They never truly understand that they are building muscle memory. They get bored. They get burnt out. They leave. It’s a sad thing. It’s sad for the student and it’s even more so for the instructor if “growing a business” is the only thing he is there for. The student must be willing, no the student must be strong enough, to endure boredom, repetition, and constant criticism. That said, the traditional Sensei is not heartless. The traditional Sensei knows what limits are. He or she also knows what kindness and compassion are. Sensei will take the student to the edge of what they think they can do and help the student break the barriers and limitations of their beliefs. In doing this, there is growth.

 

Most people ask, “What about team building?” That’s one of a huge number of New Age politically correct terms that we have adopted in our society today. By training with each other and working hard towards a goal the student learns valuable lessons that will last them an entire lifetime. Once they have accomplished a task or reached a goal, they have something to look back on and be proud of. When they reach this state and they see another student struggling with the same obstacle they overcame, they reach out to that student and help them overcome it as well. You see, it’s not team building. It’s not a team. It becomes a family. Families help each other. I’m not sure about you but I would much rather that my family had my back than my team. Most business professionals today would have you believe that team and family are the same thing. They are not and they never will be.

 

The traditional dojo is struggling these days. We live in a society of instant gratification. We see something. We want it. We get it We do this sometimes regardless of the situation. I can’t pay my mortgage this month but I sure do have a fine new truck. Some people walk into a martial arts school these days and they want it all and they want it now. They want to be a black belt in six months. They want to run their own school in a year. They want to have the most popular self- defense course out there in a matter of months. The sad fact is that there are many martial arts schools and martial artists out there that are willing to give someone that…for the right amount of money.

 

Yet people on average take things at face value. They believe whatever hype that someone tells them simply because they don’t know any better. Those who are actually willing to do some research on something often read a huge steaming pile of bull on the internet and take it as gospel because a website said it was true.

 

So here’s some advice for any of you instructors out there that want to take it. If you have a sign on your building that states that you are a traditional stylist, be a traditional stylist. Teach your art for what it is, your art. If you have someone who walks into your dojo wanting to watch because they are interested in perhaps taking your classes, send one of your adult senior students over to sit with them. Instruct them to be there to answer questions the prospective student may have. Don’t preach to them, simply be a source of information. Be proud of your style, your lineage, and the rich history of your art.

 

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What Are We Doing To Ourselves?

September 6, 2016 Leave a comment

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Some time ago I read an article about a 10 year old martial arts student who had just earned her THIRD Black Belt…her THIRD. I had to sit back and ask myself “How does this happen?”
Have you ever walked into a martial arts school and saw all the black belts roaming around? They are everywhere and they range in age from 6 up (at least I hope they are at least 6). I was in a dojo one time and a very polite, very well mannered young man walked up to me and asked if he could help me. Around his waist was a black belt with several stripes on it of various colors. I smiled and bowed slightly. I told him that I was only there to watch. He smiled courteously at me and said if I had any questions to please feel free to ask. He then added that he was one of the Assistant Instructors. He might have been 12.
Perhaps you are reading this and know very little about the martial arts. Perhaps you are a parent and your child has been going to the same studio with the same instructor in the same art for a couple of years. All you know of what your child is studying is what you have been told by her instructor. Basically all you know about the martial arts is what you have learned from your child’s training. I’m going to pass on some information to you that you may not know.
In the vast majority of martial arts it takes at least four years of constant, hard, repetitive training to master the basics in order to even be considered for testing for a First Degree Black Belt, or Shodan in Japanese. Four years is being very generous. Some people train for up to six years to test. The four years would be someone who literally lives their art and train every time the dojo door is open. When it’s not, they train at home.
That’s the physical part of the process. However any teacher who is worth their merit knows that the physical aspects are only the surface. A student has to have a certain mental and emotional maturity as well. It’s not enough to be able to execute a nearly flawless side thrust kick one has to know when, why, and why not to throw that kick. What most people seem to have forgotten is the “martial” part of martial arts. Karate, Jujitsu, Kung Fu, and the majority of other styles were created for self defense purposes in times when a conflict could very easily turn into a live or die situation. Warriors trained to make war. Warriors trained to defend themselves from an attacker who had the sole intention of killing them. There is great power and great responsibility in the art that we teach. In feudal Japan a person well skilled in a form of martial art was as powerful (and dangerous) as a person with a firearm in modern times. The training was deadly serious and the skills were deadly serious. Yet, with seemingly no regard for any of that, there are schools out there that award six year olds with the rank of black belt. Would you give a six year old a firearm?
Why are we doing this?
In America the answer is blatantly and painfully obvious:  money. Trust me, there is big money in it. For example I know a school right now that charges $600 for the opportunity to test for a black belt. The under black belt tests are pretty costly as well.
But Little Johnny has trained for two years and has promoted all the way up through the ranks.
And that is the way you, as good paying customers, have been conditioned to think. It seems like every month there is another test. There are only eight belt colors in the system your child is studying yet she went through 32 rank tests to get to black belt. Every time you turned around you were shelling out $100.00, sometimes for a piece of different colored tape on your child’s belt. Here’s some info for you: Martial Arts didn’t even have a belt ranking system until Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo created one.
An instructor promotes an eight year old to black belt. It’s great for self esteem. He has made a ton of money off this kid. But come on, what does it tell the public? It tell them that this is The Best you have. Or even worse, the training being offered there is kids stuff. A certain level of maturity and competence is expected with a black belt. A level that no eight year old could possibly have. I have a couple of rather large men in my dojo and my first question is: Does this kid really have the training, skill, and mental discipline to fight off an attacker of that size?
We are what the public sees us as. In my system, here in America, the youngest one can be awarded the rank of Shodan is 16. The rule varies slightly in Japan. It pains me sometimes to see a six year old child walk into the dojo and want to take classes because I know the odds of that child training under me for ten years are next to impossible. I will take students as young as 6 and I will do my best. Most of them burn out or move on to other things well before they are ready to test for a black belt. When they leave, it is my hope that I have instilled in them some of the basic lessons that karate has to offer.
Don’t misunderstand me. Martial Arts are great for kids. It does teach them valuable skills which makes it easier for them to be better student, better athletes, and better people in general. But have we so badly lost sight of what a black belt means that we promote children to that high of a level of proficiency when in our hearts we know it isn’t right? And it’s not right. If you believe it is then your training was flawed somewhere down the line. Or perhaps you look at it from the point of view that it’s your business and that’s the way you run it. It being a “business” to you is part of the problem. We need to bring back some of the pride that has been lost in what we do. We need to bring back some of the honor that has been lost in the never ending quest to have a successful business. If you make your black belt ranks mean something, it makes your style mean something. If your style means something, you mean something. So by all means, teach kids. Have kids classes. Have a kids program. But let’s not take the very thing that should have the most meaning and the most honor in our systems and make it a children’s game.

New Video

December 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Well….It’s really a couple of years old. I’ve had it on the FB page for a while. Please feel free to check it out under the Videos tab here. It’s called Delta Tournament. Enlarge to full screen, turn the volume up (there’s a couple of nice tunes in it) , and enjoy.

Through The Dark Night

September 30, 2013 6 comments

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It has been quite a while since I have posted on any regular basis here. For those of you who actually follow and enjoy this blog, I truly apologize.

As most of you know, my wife of 18 years passed away in May from cancer. It was sudden and it was very fast. I think myself and my daughters actually held on to the hope that we would beat it until the very end. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing has never been certain in my mind or in my heart.

After the funeral was over things calmed down a bit. People stopped bringing food by the house. The visits became fewer and further between. I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. With that came time to think, meditate, and reflect. To be totally honest, that actual time period became a part of the gray “black and white” world I had found myself existing in. If you have ever been very sick, suffering from a fever, and woke up on your sofa in the middle of the night with an old B&W movie playing on the tv you can grasp what I mean. You see the movie playing in the dark. Yet there is no color. You see the people’s mouths move. Sometimes you even hear the sound of their words, but you can’t quite understand what they are saying. That was my life in a nutshell at that point.

Then something happened. I made a decision. I decided that it was imperative that I get some kind of normality back in my life. I had to do things I was used to doing. I had to be places I was used to being. Work was one thing that happened quickly. All of my vacation time and sick time was exhausted and financially I HAD to get back there. But there was something else. Like an old friend or a comfortable warm blanket, the dojo called to me.

I have to admit the first time I entered the building was rough. You have to understand that my dojo is decorated and furnished to look as much like a traditional training hall as possible. It is at least done that way to the best of my knowledge and ability. There are fans on the walls, oriental screens set around, and various wall hangings and scrolls. My wife had either bought these, been with me when I bought them, or jokingly pitched a fit when I spent what she believed to be too much money on them. There is a collage on one wall with photographs of students, past and present. Of course she is in some of those photographs because even though Carol never took one single formal lesson from me, she was very much part of the life-blood of the dojo, even to the point that a lot of people, students and parents alike, called her “Mrs Sensei”. Her spirit was as alive in that studio as it was at home.

Instead of letting it get me down I began to take comfort in it. I remembered all of the things she had done and things she had helped me do including the benefit for Family Crisis Services which had been the last event she had played a major role in. The day of the event she stayed at the dojo, working the front door until she became so tired and fatigued she was forced to leave.

Something amazing began to happen. I didn’t even realize it at first but with each passing moment spent there I, out of reflex, began to change back into the Sensei I had lost for a long time. My focus shifted to doing what I was supposed to do: teaching. I stopped worrying about what other instructors were doing. I stopped stressing on what bill to pay first. I remembered a saying someone told me or I read a long time ago: “Treat every single class like it’s your last one and every single student like it’s the last time you will ever teach them”. Considering what I had just went through, and still was going through actually, that struck a very deep chord inside of me even though, as I said, I didn’t even realize exactly what was going on.

A few really special things happened in the process. My students sensed something different and it became contagious. Sensei was actually living up to the Go Do Shin (5 Way Spiritual Path) and remembering the “Spirit of First Beginnings”. It became contagious. They started enjoying classes again…and…they told friends who came in to try classes. Many of them stayed.

Something else that is worth mentioning. Many of you who have read this blog at all know that I have had some serious issues with the Fight Like a Girl Women’s Self-Defense program. I’m not saying that some things about it still don’t bother me however, I looked at the phone one day and there was a strange number on the voicemail. I hit the play button and it was Sensei Kym Rock, the founder of FLAG. Sensei Rock had saw my post on this blog about the guy teaching self- defense techniques that were weak and wouldn’t work and calling his program Fight Like a Girl. She had checked and the guy was NOT part of her organization and she had taken steps to rectify the situation. But more importantly, more dear to my heart, the thing that touched me, was that Sensei Rock had heard of Carol’s passing and offered me very sincere and heart-felt condolences. Because myself and some types of modern technology simply don’t get along and I accidentally erased the message and number, I never got to tell her “thank you”. So, Sensei, should you happen to read this please accept my deep and true appreciation for your time and your kind words.

I have also looked back on some things in my life and come to terms with them. Life is too short and far too precious to waste your energies on silly things or stupid bickering. It is far better to let that kind of negativity go and channel your time, energy, and emotions into helping other people with a sincere spirit of care and compassion. Carrying around hatred and other negative energies serves no purpose at all. We are put here in this life for a very short time. It is precious and should not be squandered on trivial things. You can’t live a happy fulfilled life if your spirit is in constant chaos.

Perhaps this will make sense to you. Perhaps it won’t. Either way, reflect on it for a while. We can all find a positive even in the most negative time of our lives if we simply allow it to happen.

7 Virtues of Bushido


7 virtues

Shifting Gears


I sat around contemplating my retirement yesterday. A whole new chapter had opened in my life and as exciting as that was, I found myself at a loss at times as to what I was going to do with myself. Who was I after over 23 years of a job defining me as to who and what I was?
As I thought further I realized something I have known for many years and seemed to have forgotten in the past few months: my job has NEVER defined who I was as a person.

What did?

Well, the job was what I did. What and who I was and am have always revolved around karate and the dojo. Quite simply, there is nowhere else in the universe that I feel more like “me” than the dojo.

I looked back over the time that has passed since my surgery in March. I thought of all of the time I have been able to spend at the school and all of the ideas and effort I have been able to put into it. The past few months have given me greater peace than any time I can remember in my life. I have felt at ease. I have felt joy and happiness. I have felt like I was…me.

I have always said that the dojo was not a business. I have always said that I have a job and that is what pays my bills. That is as true now as it has ever been with one small exception: I have retired. I have been blessed with finding a part-time job that could quite possibly become a second career. The thing is that job is part-time and affords me more time than I have ever had to focus on the dojo yet still supplements my retirement. In other words: I still have the income to support my family who I love and as a bonus I have more time to devote to my art which I love. I have to smile about that because you see, it’s not a business, it’s as much a part of me as the air that I breath. I was reading an article today written by a martial arts businessman. He went on and on about how people who taught karate as a “hobby” and didn’t make it their primary business were hurting the “indusrty” and were embaressing. I SO stronly disagree! In my opinion these people are the very heart and soul of the martial arts. They, like me, do it because they LOVE it. They do it because it is part of them and who and what they are.

Thinking like this and meditating on it I couldn’t help but to smile at my hidden blessing. I see other people who run their martial arts school as a business. They struggle. They market. They work one or two other jobs or own one or two other businesses either to make ends meet or to gain as much in material things as they possibly can. This sort of mind-set, this environment, makes many of them ruthless. It makes them businessmen who will go to any length at all to be successful.

My blessing? Simply put; I have the same exact income, if not better, coming in from toiling for so many years in government service and twice as much time to devote to the thing in life that I love. I don’t have to be ruthless. I simply have to be what I have been here in this town since I began: a Sensei. I don’t have to grow my “business”. I get the opportunity to enlarge my “family”. I don’t have to stand on a rooftop and shout to the world about how good I am or how moral I am. I simply have to be those things.

It’s wonderfully strange and funny. I have shifted gears on a very deep level. Even though I have shifted gears it’s seamless like Captain Kirk shifting the Enterprise into warp speed. The gears have shifted but no one feels a thing…but we are going faster.

The Four Basic Truths Of Violent Assault

March 8, 2012 2 comments

Rory A. Miller is a Corrections Officer who resides in Portland, Oregon. He is a training officer with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and is ranked in Sosuishitsu-ryu Jujutsu and Judo.
I share a lot ion common with his philosophies in self-defense because of this and base a lot of my self-defense training from his written works.

The Four Basic Truths of Violent Assault
By Rory A. Miller

As a corrections officer, I am often thrust into sudden violent situations. On one particular occasion, I responded to an incident between two inmates.

One was brushing his teeth. The other came up behind him and struck him on the right side of his head. The tooth brusher tried to turn but was pressed into a corner, punched again and again with hard rights until he curled into a fetal ball. Blood splashed (not smeared) onto the wall at shoulder height.

Do you train for this? Do you respect the power of a sudden attack and a constant barrage?

The attacker broke several bones in his hand and did not know it. He didn’t break just the metacarpals of a boxer’s fracture, but also one of his fingers was deformed. He did not know it and just kept hitting. He started complaining of the pain several hours later.

Do you ever teach that pain alone will stop a committed attacker, that if you break a bone, it’s over?

I told the attacker that he was lucky. If the other guy had fallen or hit his head on the wall and suffered more serious injury, he could be looking at some heavier charges. He said, “Nah, I held his head with my other hand so it wouldn’t hit the wall. I know how you guys trump up charges and if I’d let him hit the wall you’d try to get me for attempted murder.”

Do you and your students realize how rational, how planned, a sudden assault can be? It’s only sudden for the defender. Far too often “sudden” is part of his plan. Do you understand that there is a sub-group of human beings who can savagely beat another human being while coolly thinking of their eventual court case?

The Four Basic Truths

Assaults happen closer, faster, more suddenly and with more power than most people can understand.

Closer: Most self-defense drills are practiced at an optimum distance where the attacker must take at least a half step to contact. This gives techniques like blocks enough time to have an effect. You rarely have this time or this distance in a real assault. Give some thought to how your technique will work if there is no room to turn or step. Remember that the attacker always chooses the range and the location, and will pick a place and position that hampers your movements.

Faster: When your martial arts students are sparring, use a stop watch and time how many blows are thrown in a minute. Even in professional boxing, the number is not that impressive. Then time how many times you can hit a heavy bag in a second. Six to eight times a second is reasonable for a decent martial artist. An assault is more like that. Because the attacker has chosen a time when the victim is off-guard, he can attack all-out with no thought of defense. A competent martial artist who is used to the more cautious timing of sparring is completely unprepared for this kind of speed. You can strike ten times a second. You can’t block ten times a second.

More suddenly: An assault is based on the attacker’s assessment of his chances. If he can’t get surprise, he often won’t attack. Some experts will say that there is always some intuitive warning. Possibly, but if the warning was noted and heeded, the attack would have been prevented. When the attack happens, it is always a surprise.

More power: There is a built-in problem with all training. You want to recycle your partners. If you or your students hit as hard as they can every time they hit, you will quickly run out of students. The average criminal does not hit as hard as a good boxer or karateka can, but they do hit harder than the average boxer or karateka usually does because of gloves and dojo etiquette. More often than not, the first strike in an ambush will find its target. Fighting with a concussion is much different than sparring.

Responses to the Four Basic Truths
There are specific ways to train to deal with these truths about assault. You must get used to working from a position of disadvantage. Put yourself and your students in the worst positions you can (face down, under a bench, blindfolded to simulate blood in the eyes and with an arm tied in their belt) and start the training from there. No do-overs. Work from the position you find yourself in. There is no “right” move anyway, just moves that worked or didn’t that one time.

Contact-response training. Condition (as in operant conditioning) for a quick, effective response to any unexpected aggressive touch. Trained properly, the counter-attack will kick in before the chemical cocktail of stress hormones. This will give you one technique at 100%, and possibly the initiative, to the expected victim. Remember, when you are pumped full of adrenaline, you will loose much of your fine motor coordination, peripheral vision, etc. So you need to have your 100% technique trained to be automatic.

Train to “flip the switch”. Make your students practice going from friendly, distracted, or any other emotion to full on in an instant. Make them play music, converse, fold clothes, write or pour tea as an armored assailant attacks. The key is that the distraction must be natural and relaxed, not the jerky half-preparation of someone who expects an attack.

In slow motion training, use realistic time-framing. Do not let them pretend that “Monkey plucks jade lotus and presents to golden Buddha” is one move; do not let them pretend that a spinning kick is just as fast as a jab.

Get used to being hit, and get used to being touched, especially on the face. For various reasons, face contact between adults is loaded with connotations. Accidental face contact almost always results in both students freezing and can cause an outpouring of emotional sludge. Criminals use this by starting with an open-hand attack to the face (called a “***** slap”) that has paralyzing psychological effects.

Teach common sensitivity. They must respond to what is happening, not to their expectations or fears. If there are weapons mounted on the walls of your dojo and you are practicing self-defense someone should be reaching for the weapons or running for the door.

Forbid giving up. Winning is a habit. Fighting is a habit. Put them in positions where they are completely immobilized and helpless and set the expectation to keep fighting.

The Flaw in the Drill
In the end, a martial artist is training to injure, cripple or kill another human being. However, in the dojo we cannot go about breaking our students So in any drill where students are not regularly hospitalized there is a DELIBERATE flaw, a deliberate break from the needs of reality introduced in the name of safety. In every drill you teach, you must consciously know what the flaw is and make your student aware of it.