There is a lot of talk these days on "real" martial arts. So, what is real? Depends on individual perceptions, but there are schools and there are dojos. One is designed to stroke your ego and keep students (and money) flowing in. The other is structured to discriminate between committed individuals and hobby-seekers; the latter typically don't last long and are often encouraged to seek training elsewhere.
So, what does a real dojo look like? Here's some food for thought.
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. This depends on the style, but 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 practical application than aesthetics. 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, adding silly acrobatic moves to karate kata or having training partners take ridiculous, unnecessary falls dilutes the art. 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.
6. 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 teacher 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.
Jissenkan Karate Jutsu
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.
Jissenkan Karate Jutsu
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.
Jissenkan Karate Jutsu
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.
Jissenkan Karate Jutsu
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.
Anyone who teaches martial arts has to contend with the "revolving door syndrome." People come and people go. They might stay for a week, a month, maybe even a year and then they just stop training. The funny thing is, people often quit shortly after they finally decide to purchase a uniform and equipment. Some times I get a warning, other times people simply disappear. Of course, I will follow up with those folks to make sure they are ok and I typically get any number of excuses as to why they stopped training. Here are a few in no particular order with my response.
"I don't have time to train." What things in life do you have time for? Just be honest and tell me it's not a priority for you. I can understand and accept that.
"Aikido is too difficult; I just don't get it." Do you always avoid difficult things in life? There is no success without failure. Repeated failure is how you learn self control and discipline. Worthy pursuits are never easy.
"I want to train, but life keeps getting in the way." What does that mean? If this is something that's really important to you, you will find a way. But don't blame life...that's on you.
"You are too militant for me." You do understand that "martial" means military, right? I may have high expectations, but that's only because I've done this a long time and I know what it takes for you to learn it and be able to use it. If you want want to be taught by someone who will constantly stoke your ego, there are a lot of other folks out there who will gladly take your money.
"I can't afford the lessons." When have I ever said you can't train if you can't pay? We can work something out.
"Aikido doesn't work. It's not practical for the street." Your aikido doesn't work because you don't train often enough and when you do train, you don't commit yourself. If you want quick and easy, buy a gun.
"I keep getting hurt." That's because you don't train or do anything physical outside of the dojo, or you still smoke or drink too much or have a poor diet. Learning a real martial art takes tremendous commitment that includes getting into and staying in good physical condition. You get hurt because you have not physically and mentally committed yourself to training.
"I don't agree with wearing 16th Century uniforms. Nobody wears a gi in the street." The concept of the martial arts uniform (keikogi) has only been around for about 100 years. Uniforms soak up sweat and blood and help keep the training environment clean while protecting your skin from cuts and abrasions, allowing you to train for real confrontations.
"I can only come once a week." I'm only asking for two nights out of seven. If your schedule is really hectic, then I will help you find a way. If that means training with you on a different day for a while I will do my best to accommodate you...but you have to meet me half way.
"I found another art I'd like to try." Great! Keep training and drop me a line once in a while. The door is always open if you decide to come back.
Some of this probably sounds a little harsh but I'm willing to bet there are a few teachers out there who have heard these excuses. It doesn't bother me if you decide to stop training or go somewhere else. I just want you to be honest with me...and yourself.