There is a lot of talk these days on "real" martial arts. If you want to know whether or not you train in a "real" dojo, take a look at the following list and see if your schools lines up.
1. The dojo is sparse and spartan. Take a look at any Japanese or Okinawan dojo and you'll find a place that is specifically meant for training in martial arts. If it's not outside, it's a very crude and mostly empty space aside from training equipment. It has no heat or central air and smells like a locker room most of the time. No fancy posters, no trophies, nothing special with exception to the kimaza or spiritual center of the room/building.
2. The training is difficult and painful. A dojo exists for two reasons: To study the art and science of combat and to mitigate the ego. In order to accomplish these things, your training must be severe because combat is severe. You have to learn to deal with pain, fear, frustration and disappointment. A dojo was never meant to be a place where you go to have a good time. It's supposed to be harsh and void of comfort. You go to a dojo to learn how to deal with life...and death.
3. The test for black belt (shodan) nearly kills you. Shodan represents one's physical and mental growth in a martial art. It essentially means you have reached the point in your training where you can now truly learn something. It's not the goal...it is the beginning. As such, it should only be awarded to those who consistently demonstrate the capacity to learn through tenacity and grit. Shodan should never be given to you just because you've shown up a number of times.
4. You and your technique are constantly tested. A good teacher will create an environment that provides you with lots of opportunities to fail. If your understanding and physical application of the art are never tested, either through serious randori or kumite, how can you possibly believe your practice is valid? This means your training partners actually try to hit you, grab you, stab you, etc., with various, unplanned attacks. It means that if you fail to apply a given technique effectively, you go home with a black eye, a couple of bruises and some wisdom.
5. There is more emphasis on aesthetics of the art rather than the practical application. With some exceptions, e.g. kyudo (bo and arrow) or iaido (the art of drawing the sword), most modern budo forms were designed for close-quarter, physical confrontations. Practicing merely for looks, e.g. adding silly acrobatic moves to karate kata or aikido uke taking huge, unnecessary falls dilutes the art in my opinion. If the art you practice places a strong emphasis on combat applicability in the real world, the mental, physical and spiritual benefits are sure to follow.
5. You teacher trains just as hard if not harder than you do. This is paramount for me. I have no respect for people who strut around a dojo with an exalted status, providing "pearls of wisdom" without ever braking a sweat. You really need to question a sensei who refuses to take the same falls, conducts but never participates in kihon (basics) or avoids kumite (sparring) because of some misguided notion that he or she is above all that. Be particularly concerned if your teacher is out of shape, smokes, drinks too much or does drugs. This person is obviously not living by the discipline he or she claims to practice.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. People tend to forget that martial means military and military means combat. Whether we're talking about modern arts (budo) or classical (bujutsu), the original concept of the dojo had nothing to do with being a type of daycare/personal training/pizza party venue. And if you are paying a large sum of money to train there, you should question how that money is used. You go to a nice, well-equipped gym and pay high-end personal trainers for the amenities and the compliments. You go to a dojo to learn that you don't need the creature comforts the rest of the world chases after.
One of the main reasons we tend to lose students is because of their unwillingness to fail on a frequent basis. It never ceases to surprise me how some people actually believe they can walk into a martial arts school and just "pick it up" in a few months or less.
If we take karate, for example, a person with little or no experience can learn the basics of kicking and punching in a relatively short amount of time. A false sense of confidence often develops in students who, impressed with their ability to strike a bag come to realize how difficult it is to hit a moving target the first time they experience kumite (free sparring). Especially a target that fights back. In my experience, this is when people tend to drop out a karate dojo. A teacher may recognize this before it happens and give the student some extra pointers to keep their interest.
However, I have to say it is very difficult to keep someone coming to an aikido dojo because failure is such a frequent occurrence. You may not always know how bad you're kicking and punching; you might even feel pretty good about yourself. On the contrary, you always know how bad your ukemi (rolling) and technique are because it hurts and doesn't work. The learning curve in aikido is huge, even for someone with experience in another art. It's hard to feel good about yourself when you fail all the time. Some folks recognize this as a challenge and stick with it; most do not.
Failure is a vital aspect of martial arts training - and life. We all fail at life from time to time. We fail to meet the expectations of others as well as our own. We fail to live up to standards, to meet deadlines, to make the grade. There are two paths we can take: give up and stop caring or keep failing and drive on until you get it right. Enlightened people realize that it takes a lifetime to get it right.
Failure is only a bad thing if we don't learn from it.
I have visited many martial arts schools over the years and I am struck by the lengths some teachers go to provide a fun, enjoyable experience for their students. Pleasant, colorful atmosphere, crisp, starched uniforms with no blood or sweat stains, minimal contact and almost no danger of injury. One of my favorite new martial arts fads: padded weapons such as sticks, swords, long staffs, etc., that are nothing more than PVC pipes covered with foam...so nobody gets hurt. Believe me, you learn a great deal from getting your fingers mashed by a wooden sword (boken).
You will not learn anything about a fighting art unless you fight...constantly. This means applying the techniques of your given style as close to reality as possible against someone having a skill level equal to or higher than your own. It means frequently placing yourself in uncomfortable situations so that you learn how to deal with physical and mental stress in a calm and focused way.
Be it karate, aikido, mma, etc, a serious sensei or coach will create and maintain an atmosphere that poses real danger to you and you will experience pain, especially during the beginning stages of your training. Your body and most importantly your ego will suffer. That's what budo is about. It's not supposed to be a warm, fuzzy experience. If you are seeking enlightenment through martial arts, you simply cannot avoid pain and discomfort because that's where the real training is.
Things like comradery, respect, trust and friendship happen in places and experiences where people suffer together and are exposed to the same danger and discomfort. It's not supposed to be like going to a tennis club or the bowling alley.
It's supposed to hurt.
It's not where you've been, how many trophies you have, how many fights you've won. It's what you do and who you are that makes a difference.
It's not how good you were or all the hours you spent training all those years ago...it's what you do now...today. What is your routine now? What do you eat? What chemicals do you put in your body? How many times do you let yourself off the hook because you are: too old, too tired, too sore or just not in the mood to train because you'd rather do something to comfort yourself?
What good is your rank and/or title if you are not constantly trying to maintain it? Those things only influence others so far. It's what people see you do and say on a daily basis that leads them and teaches them...and I don't just mean martial arts students.
If your students never see you sweat, you won't have students very long...not good ones, anyway. If they never see you struggle or in pain, why should they keep coming? If they never see you mess up because you only pick people to demonstrate on that make you look good, how will they learn to overcome their own mistakes?
Respect for where you've been comes when you're like, 80. Not today. Don't give yourself an out and for goodness sake, don't pat yourself on the back. Be an example. It's the road less traveled by.
It's not where you've been...it's who you are.
Now more than ever before, at least as far as I remember there seems to be a growing trend assume a traditional martial art will be ineffective in a street fight. This notion is perpetuated by a lot of "fighters" out there who use the MMA ring as the gold standard upon which to measure all martial arts. If I buy into this mentality, I'd better be practicing a combination of BJJ, western and Tai boxing. Furthermore, if I'm not sparring full contact all the time, well I have no hope of survival.
At the risk of offending some of my friends in the traditional arts, this is actually true to some extent.
We tend to forget that the "martial" arts were military arts. Techniques used by combatants for maiming and killing enemies in order to survive and accomplish a given mission. Martial arts had nothing to do with belts, sports or notoriety with exception to those looking to open schools to make and income.
If we want our training to be combat effective, it is imperative that we practice our martial arts using a military mindset. This involves strategy and tactics.
Strategic planning means thinking about and acting on the various scenarios we could find ourselves in from a simple mugging attempt to an active shooter. Tactics, on the other hand, are the methods I will employ in a confrontation. Those methods are only as effective and relevant as my day-to-day training.
In order for my tactics to be effective, I need to explore various scenarios, attacks methods, angles, distance, etc. In other words, I have to learn the kata (really learn the kata) and apply it in as many ways as possible. I also need to make sure my weapon "stays sharp." For most of us, that weapon is our body. Combat effectiveness is directly related to physical fitness, so our training should be rigorous and thorough in order to have the best chance for survival.
In my view, a martial arts dojo should place students in the kinds of situations they are likely to encounter in the real world. Attackers generally don't wear gloves and pads in the real world and they probably won't square off with you. If that happens, you can simply walk away and avoid the confrontation. Harder than it sounds, but "agreeing" to fight someone for any reason other than a prearranged sport event is poor strategy.
The lesson here is simple: get into and stay in the best physical condition you can. Train hard, train often and train with the proper mindset. Take it seriously because your life may depend on it.
Most traditional martial artists have in the back their minds the question of combat applicability. In simple terms, "will it work in the street?" It is good question. We spend hours, weeks, and years perfecting physical skills with the intent of possibly using those skills in an actual confrontation. As a clarification, let us concentrate on the weaponless arts, e.g. karate, judo, aikido, hapkido and the empty-hand forms of gung-fu.
Fighting contests have been the "gold standard" for testing martial arts applicability for many years. Several arts, such as Kyokushin Karate founded my Mas Oyama Sensei are predicated on pitting one fighter against another in an ultimate test of physical skill and mental tenacity. Of course, the modern standard is Mixed Martial Arts or MMA. These gladiator-esque competitions enthrall audiences all over the world. Competitors come from many different backgrounds, fusing striking and grappling arts into a formidable, individualized system. Some would argue, the ultimate form of "self-expression" in combat. Watching a match between two seasoned fighters, the average person generally concludes that this is what martial arts training is all about.
I would disagree. This is what competition is all about. When I compete with some one, I have an opponent. If I am forced to fight some one, I have an adversary. One practice is for fun, fitness and a sense of accomplishment. The other, if it is taken seriously, is about life and death.
While defining budo is a difficult task and a subject for another discussion, we can safely categorize it as a study of military principles and practices with an emphasis on personal development. In other words, the study and practice of war. The study of war involves strategy and tactics whose ultimate purpose is to overcome aggression and maintain order; to avoid or stop aggression as quickly as possible. Thus, while the strategy may be to avoid conflict, e.g. staying clear of places where there is sure to be confrontation, the tactics might be something as simple walking away from a fight...or a front thrust kick to the pelvis when walking away is not an option.
In terms of close-quarter combat, the strategy of traditional martial arts is to never place one's self in a position equal to that of the opponent. In a broad sense, this is why nations strive to have superior air power, nuclear weapons, technology, etc. So, warriors train to have superiority against any foe. As warrior, I would not want to meet another warrior on the battlefield for a single engagement just to see who wins. That would be poor strategy and a waste of limited resources. I would much rather catch that warrior off guard and unaware, thus seizing the opportunity to end a conflict before it starts. Seeking and purposely engaging in conflict as a contest of physical ability places me in a poor tactical position and allows for a greater chance of failure. In war, failure means death. Choosing to engage in conflict such as an bar or street brawl, for example, places me on the same level as the average thug and demonstrates a deficit in my mental and spiritual development. Whenever I "square off" with some one, I have in fact chosen to engage with that person. Not the best strategy.
My tactics then, must come from hours of rigorous and unrelenting training with and without a partner. This type of practice conditions my mind and body to act and react to conflict in a smooth and economical fashion without hesitation. It would not make sense for me to spend what little time I have each day practicing sparring tactics if my ultimate aim is to end conflict quickly and efficiently. It's really that simple; you will fight the way you train. If you train for the ring, that is the way you will fight. If you spend your time training on specific combat tactics and condition your body for that type of engagement, that is the way you will fight. Two completely different training mechanisms with two completely different goals.
The goal of competition is to win. By defeating my opponent I overcome my fears and doubts about my abilities. With every successful bout, I gain confidence and build my ego. If I fail, it pushes me to try harder. Competition teaches me to keep striving for life goals. It's not bad thing; it's just not budo.
The purpose of budo is to mitigate the ego, not enhance it. Training forces me to come to grips with all of my faults (mental, physical and spiritual) and overcome them through repetition. This slow and arduous process eventually changes my outlook, the way I engage with people and ultimately, how I handle conflict. A person who has practiced budo for any length of time eventually realizes that there is no quick gratification, no trophy or title that truly helps him on the path to self perfection.
I am not saying that sport is a bad thing. I am suggesting that when we mix budo with sport we tend to lose important aspects of each. This is why traditional martial arts typically do not fair well in an MMA ring and why competitive martial arts look nothing like their original forms. One is sport, one is not. The strategy and tactics are different as are the purposes for each. Pitting one against the other does not prove anything, so let's stop worrying about it. You do your thing and I'll do mine and we can all get along.
I recently got into a verbal sparring match with an individual on YouTube who had a lot of negative comments for a video we posted. Our video, "Fighting With Aikido," was intended to demonstrate the difference between fighting and sparring and how we attempt to apply aikido techniques to a physical confrontation. We frequently wear MMA gloves during practice in order to provide training beyond traditional boundaries and explore the techniques in a different way. This video was taken during one of those sessions. It was impromptu, unplanned. We weren't actually trying to make a video, but we thought it would be a good example of what we do.
Of course, not everyone thought so.
This individual commented on our lack of fighting ability, compared us to MMA, etc., etc. I then questioned his martial arts background, which brought even more ranting. I used what I thought was sufficient reasoning for what we presented and I was very careful and respectful. I tried to "aiki" my way around this situation by redirecting his negative energy. It didn't work. There was no reasoning with this guy. What I should have done was to avoid the confrontation and allow him to have his opinion. That would have been the budo way to handle it. I guess I'm still learning.
In the days before the internet, if people were curious about your martial art, they would come to your dojo and try it out. Maybe they past by the store front or saw your add in the phone book. Those of us who have been in the game for a long time remember "open mat nights" when anybody could come in, pay their ten dollars and fight whoever they wanted. If some one didn't believe the jujutsu or karate our school offered was effective, they could jump into any class and try it out...the hard way. Some people may view this as egotistical and pugilistic but I always thought it was a great way to learn. After all, I was one of those young punks when I started and I had to be educated the same way.
On the other hand, posting videos on the internet opens a school up to all kinds of rants and ridicule from nameless individuals. Instead of having to muster the courage to walk into a dojo and actually see and feel what it teaches, these folks can throw verbal jabs from miles away from the safety of their homes, bars and coffee houses. Thus, the onus or burden of proof lies with the school or entity posting the video. Some schools and organizations spend lots of money and time putting up very well produced videos. And yet, even they get the same abuse. We simply do not have that kind of money or time. Even if we did, it wouldn't matter how good or authentic our videos looked...someone out there would put it down...because they can.
We will continue to put videos out there. Despite the drawbacks, we believe it's a great way to educate people on the value of we do and hopefully gain some local interest. We may have to deal with the occasional "internet sensei" but that's okay. What matters most is how we affect the people closest to us...our students, our families and the people we physically interact with every day.
What makes a given technique an "aikido" technique or a "karate" technique? If I use mae geri during aikido randori, am I no longer practicing aikido? Some ardent aikidokas out there believe so. In the 25 years I've studied and practiced aikido, I've heard this phrase time and again and it confuses me. To be clear, aikido has its own philosophy just as any modern budo. But it seems to me that there a lot of budoka who try desperately to preserve the sanctity of their art to such a degree that they refuse to incorporate anything that remotely resembles something outside of their system.
Aikido's basic philosophy is to "blend" with an attack rather than clash so as to envelope an aggressor's energy, redirect it and control thus neutralizing the attack. This seems to be in direct contrast to the majority of karate styles, for example, whose answer to an attack is to block and counter or strike at the perception of aggression rather than waiting and having to counter. In my opinion, all budo is based in the relatively same esoteric principles of seeking a peaceful resolution to conflict and the techniques of a given system are nothing more than the mechanics of that philosophy. Furthermore, I firmly believe that incorporating tools from other systems not only enhances my ability to defend myself but gives me a deeper meaning and perspective into the art that I teach and practice.
As an example, all of my aikibudo students learn basic kicks and punches from Shotokan and Matsubashi Karate Kempo, the two systems of karate I've studied and practiced. The principles of grounding needed to properly execute seiken are the same as the those used in basic bokken work or in any entering technique, e.g. irimi nage. And let's face it, some times a kick to the groin or knee makes a lot more sense than trying to blend. If I use empi to strike a man's face in close-quarters because it's the fastest way to end a conflict, does that make it any less of an aikido technique? I don't believe so. It's the philosophy of the art and the opportunity to practice mental and physical discipline that continues to interest me. The "how" I practice that discipline will always be subordinate to "why."
When people describe aikido, they often refer to it as an art of self-defense that does not use strikes or kicks. This is not entirely inaccurate. After all the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, referred to it as "the art of peace." I believe this is an attractive concept for a lot of people who seek a "safe" form of martial arts training, one that they can practice without the fear of getting punched in the face or kicked in the ribs as they might in say, karate or MMA. Unfortunately, there a quite a few aikido schools out there selling the notion that a person can adequately defend against a real attack without having trained in other systems or combat-oriented styles. When this idea is challenged, some aikido practioners will avoid the obvious fallacy of this notion by saying something like, "Aikido is not about fighting, it's a way of life." Again, not an inaccurate statement, but misconstrued none-the-less.
Most people familiar with aikido know that its roots stem from kenjutsu (art of the sword) and aikijujutsu which we can accurately describe as an advanced form of jujutsu. Ancient jujutsu schools taught specific striking techniques often referred to as atemi waza. We also see striking techniques in aikijujitsu, the forerunner of aikido. These were not the clumsy, pugilistic punches and kicks often seen in sport fighting whose purpose is to cause damage anywhere they can. Instead, atemi focused on key areas of the body to cause immediate damage or destruction to end a confrontation quickly. For example, there were striking techniques specifically designed for the throat; others targeted the eyes, the knees, the groin, etc. As a master of aikijujutsu, Ueshiba Sensei would have been familiar with these techniques and undoubtedly incorporated them into the earlier form of his art that he called aikibudo. The important point here is that the original forms of the arts we practice were designed for close-quarter combat, usually involving some type of bladed weapon.
Much of the aikido we see today appears to have abandoned its combat roots in favor of three basic attacks including shomenuchi, yokomenuchi and tsuki along with assorted grabs and holds. These basic attacks are invaluable for learning and maintaining skill and proficiency in aikido. The problem is that a lot of aikido schools do not teach effective delivery of such attacks. Instead, the aggressor more or less extends his arm overhead or out to the side providing a safe and effective means for the defender to enter in and perform his technique. It looks cool, but it simply is not very realistic. Furthermore, if we only train in manner that provides an easy path to generate aikido technique, how effective is that technique?
Like many aikidoka, I had a strong background in striking (karate) before I found aikido while stationed at Misawa ABS in Japan. I was extremely fortunate to have found a good dojo, but I was a little concerned about the lack of realistic punches and kicks that I felt were vital to my own training. Still, I thought it was important for me to fully invest myself in aikido training, so I spent the majority of my free time at the dojo. After four years of intensive training, I was reassigned to another military base and immediately opened aikido classes at the gym. Anyone familiar with military bases realizes that there a lot of folks who have some form of combat training and they are always looking for a place to test their skills. Opening a dojo on a military base is an open invitation for anyone to come and lay down a challenge in one form or another and this happened to me on several occasions.
The first person to "challenge" me was guy who studied American Kempo for a number of years. He called me on the phone and said he was interested in learning aikido but when he showed up to class wearing his kempo uniform and black belt, I had a feeling he was there for a different reason. Because I had a class full of beginners, I was teaching very basic movements, rolling, falling, etc. The kempo practioner was pretty patient throughout the class, but wanted to see how aikido worked against his chosen art so I agreed to spar with him after the session. He was not in particularly good shape and I felt that my intense training in Japan over the past four years would give me an edge. I was terribly wrong. Let me stress that MY aikido did not work because I made two terrible blunders. First, I attempted to "spar" with aikido and that's not what it's for. Second, I initially didn't attempt any striking or kicking techniques to at least fend this guy off. It was only after a few minutes that my karate training kicked in and I was able to keep from getting hit (after a while). That, and his poor physical conditioning are the only things that kept me from getting completely thrashed. In the end, I did a very poor job of representing aikido but I learned a valuable lesson.
A couple of years later I was stationed at a military base in Georgia where I again opened a class at the base gym. I felt pretty confident in what I was teaching, especially after incorporating striking and grappling into my curriculum. I felt confident that is, until I met an Army Ranger who was interested in training with us. He was a very nice guy, very humble. One day after class he asked if I had any experience with knife fighting. I was sure that my 15 years of martial arts training would keep me well out of range any knife attack. Um, no. This guy killed me so many times with such ease that I seriously went home that day ready to give it all up. After thinking about it for a long time, I realized there is always something to learn, always a way to improve and add to your knowledge. Having been humbled (again), I asked my new friend to show me everything he knew about close-quarter combat and we still use many of those techniques today.
These life-changing experiences not only taught me the value of incorporating striking (and other) techniques into my aikido, but that any attack we use for training should be performed with accuracy and commitment. If we don't train with intensity and realistic attacks, our aikido is nothing more than an exercise in body movement. In our dojo, we use striking, kicking and boxing. We also pull from other arts I have had the opportunity to study, such as karate, jujutsu and grappling. I felt it was vital to incorporate different aspects of combat, not because aikido is incomplete, but to enhance our aikido training.
Aikido is an invaluable part of my life. I am a better person because of our training and the philosophy behind it. I also realize that I can never allow myself or my students to become overly confident or get comfortable. I believe this is one of the most important aspects of modern Budo training.