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Saturday, November 12, 2011


From time to time, I enjoy catching an episode of Penn and Teller's cable television show Bullshit!. For those of you who don't know, Bullshit! involves the popular illusionist duo picking something they find dishonest, underhanded, or just plain wrong, and tearing it apart with all the wit and humor they can muster--which is a considerable amount. I don't always agree with the things they have to say (Penn and Teller are staunch atheists and libertarians), but I always enjoy hearing them say it.

Over the past few years, Bullshit! has taken on conspiracy theories, religious movements, pieces of legislation, political organizations, and New Age fads, just to name a few. Their commentary is caustic, irreverent, and usually heavily laced with profanity (as the name of the show might suggest).

It was with some trepidation that I recently sought out a particular episode that I'd read about on a martial arts message board. It turns out Penn and Teller had done a Bullshit! on the martial arts. I had to find it, of course, but the idea of Penn and Teller tearing into one of my favorite activities certainly made me nervous.

Would Penn and Teller tell me that my training is, well, bullshit? Would their show be ruined for me forever? Worse, would they challenge my belief in the validity and usefulness of my martial arts training? I almost couldn't bear to watch. But, of course, I did.

In their 30-minute attempt to burst the bubble of the martial arts mystique, Penn and Teller made the following allegations:
  1. No matter how much martial arts training one has, running away from or surrendering to an attacker is much more likely to prevent harm to a victim than any martial art.
  2. Most martial arts instructors have never been in a real fight.
  3. There is a telling lack of stories in the news about robbers and attackers being thwarted with martial arts skills.
  4. Martial artists' claims about healing and other powers of "chi" or "energy" are mostly nonsense.
  5. The colored belt system that many martial arts programs hold so dear is a modern invention with very little connection to martial arts history.
  6. Many things that are being taught in martial arts studios as "self-defense" would be considered criminal acts of aggression by a court of law.
  7. Most martial arts training is more fear management than danger management, meaning that many martial arts students are being misled into a dangerous, false sense of security.
  8. Injuries are far more likely to result from martial arts training itself than from living without self-defense skills.
  9. Breaking boards is a parlor trick that has very little to do with self-defense.
There are definitely some in the martial arts community who would be deeply offended by some of these allegations. I myself have had an aikido instructor who likes to talk about throwing with "spiritual energy", and a taekwondo instructor who treats the colored belt like an ancient religious relic. For all that they might protest, though, I look back at this list and find nothing particularly offensive, or even surprising.

Why? Because, as I said a few weeks ago, I have no problem thinking of myself as an athlete and the martial arts as a sport. I don't expect the martial arts to make me an invincible warrior and I don't pretend I'm following any ancient spiritual tradition, so there is no bubble to burst. The truth, as I said back in February, is only a weapon that can be used against me so long as I cling to a lie.

But why cling to a lie when the truth has so much to offer? In two years of martial arts training, I've improved my body, my confidence, and my attitude, all without buying into any of the "bullshit" exposed by the list above. Unless Penn and Teller can tell me that the martial arts aren't making me a happier, healthier person, they can't touch me. And thankfully, I can go on laughing at them.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Name Change

A brief note about the name of the my blog: I have changed it in an effort to be a little less esoteric.

"Newbie Deshi" was a pun on the Japanese term uchi deshi. I thought myself rather clever when I first came up with it, but it has been nagging me for some time that the title of my blog was going to confuse more than amuse. Only those of us with a background in the Japanese martial arts know what an uchi deshi is.

The new title, a reference to the television series Kung Fu, I hope is a little more suitable for mass consumption.

Nothing else has changed, not even the layout of the page, so those few of you who have been reading regularly, carry on as usual.

Friday, October 21, 2011

'Sport' is a Four-Letter Word

There are many martial artists (and I used to be one of them) who take real offense at their arts being called sports. They believe they are practicing something more noble, more real, and more valuable than sport.

I don't know whether or not George Ledyard Sensei takes such offense, but he exemplified the kind of high-minded sentiment I'm talking about in a recent post to his blog George Ledyard's All Things Aikido. Here's an excerpt:
Aikido is a form of Budo. Budo is basically the use of the martial arts for personal transformation. Aikido as Budo is a "Michi" or Martial "WAY" (the "do" in Aiki-do). O-Sensei, the Founder, actually believed that through Aikido, the whole world could be brought into a state of harmony; he called our art "The Way of Peace". For him, Budo was a life and death matter. Given the right level of commitment one could truly become a better person, less fearful, stronger, braver, more compassionate. One could, in his or her own Mind and Body understand that everything in the universe is essentially connected. His creation of Aikido represents a radical transformation of how Budo was viewed historically. It is a unique art. It is not a "hobby", it is not a "sport", it is not a "workout", it is a Michi, a Way.
Before I go on, I would like to make aboundantly clear that I greatly respect and admire Ledyard Sensei and recommend his blog. I have never met Ledyard Sensei, but his online writing alone has been a tremendous influence on my fledgling foray into the martial arts. No small part of the credit for my decision that aikido is a real martial art worth my time and effort should be given to him. He is an icon of American aikido and a treasure of the martial arts world.

All that said, I, humble sixth kyu that I am, am about to disagree with him.

It's not that I doubt Ledyard Sensei's claim that aikido changes lives. I certianly believe it is changing mine. What bothers me is the hard dichotomy he is drawing between martial art and sport on the grounds of his art's life-changing potential.

He is not the first to do so. The world is full of martial artists claiming, "My martial art is not just a sport; it's a way of changing lives."

What I want to know is, whoever said that sports don't change lives?

There is no question that martial arts training can make us "less fearful, stronger, braver, more compassionate". We gain courage and confidence when the martial arts make us face our fears and insecurities. We become stronger as the martial arts hone our bodies and minds. We become more compassionate as we learn that others' pain, joy, failure, and success are the same as our own. The martial arts can teach us discipline and perseverance, and can be a tool for the cultivation of mindfulness (in the Buddhist sense of the word).

But as I see it, all these things can be said just as accurately of ice hockey.

The hockey player has ample opportunity to face his fear and insecurity, to hone his body and mind, to feel pain and joy and learn the pain and joy of others, to learn discipline and perseverence, and to develop mindfulness and awareness. I suspect many have achieved changed lives on the hockey rink.

I even once saw a television documentary about how ice hockey brought together families of different creeds in parts of Northern Ireland torn apart by sectarian conflict. Could it even be that through ice hockey "the whole world could be brought into a state of harmony"?

Alright, maybe I'm pushing it a bit.

We have all heard the martial arts called "a way of life". The more I train, the more I come to see martial art as an activity, something I do rather than something I am. The "way of life" perception, I think, stems from the observation that people can make real positive changes in their lives through martial arts training. But unless a lot of other things--like ice hockey--are also "ways of life", I'm not sure those changes qualify the martial arts for that lofty distinction. No doubt, for full-time professionals like Ledyard Sensei (or Sydney Crosby, in the case of hockey), it really does become a way of life, but the rest of us, I think, are best described as sportsmen, or even (gasp!) hobbyists.

To admit this doesn't mean conceding the point of changing lives. It means recognizing that the capacity to change lives is everywhere, not just in our chosen discipline. It means recognizing that there is nothing shameful or inauthentic about sport.

Those of us who train in pajamas-and-colored-belts martial arts studios these days are aware of a large section of the postmodern world that thinks we are engaging in childish playacting and nonsense. Until we stop insisting that we are better than than the rest of the world's athletes by virtue of our choice of activities, I'm afraid they might just be right.


Normally I would have ended there, but I'd like to add a little extra in reference to Ledyard Sensei, with whose words I have just taken liberty. As with most of my posts, this one will be copied onto AikiWeb, which means there is a very real chance that Ledyard Sensei himself will see it. I hope not to offend him.

To his credit, Ledyard Sensei prefaces the passage I quoted above with these words: "I have decided to explain what I believe about Aikido, and what I see as the mission of [my aikido club]. Folks can decide what these things mean to them, personally." In so saying, Ledyard Sensei opens up his remarks to interpretation and separates himself from most of the people this post is intended to critique, so I beg his pardon. His words, in this case, were just too perfect to pass up.

Domo arigato gozaimashita, Sensei.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Aikido for Me

Do nothing which is of no use.
- Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings

An injury has kept me out of aikido for the better part of the last three months. My recent return to the mat came with a boxing wrap on my left wrist and no small amount of trepidation about that wrist's future. I am a guitar player, after all.

In the meantime, as I feared, my source of free taekwondo has dried up, at least for a while. Aikido and I are left alone with each other, and I confess to some discomfort with that idea that has kept me anxiously thoughtful during my hiatus.

I have written extensively (hereherehere, and here) on the question of whether or not aikido is--or can be--everything I want it to be in my life without something else on the side. It's a question I've struggled with during my absence from the dojo, and one I wanted answered beyond all doubt before I returned and exposed my wrist to any possibility of re-injury.

What I concluded after three months of deliberation is that I come to the dojo looking for three things: (1) a martial art, (2) exercise, and (3) a tool for discovering and changing myself.

I won't stress much over the third item on the list, since I think any activity that serves as an object for mindfulness and perseverance can become the kind of tool mentioned therein. But there is some aikido, I think, that doesn't fill those first two criteria.

There is a breed of aikido that functions more like yoga or tai chi: a meditative dance that builds flexibility and supposedly develops the mind and spirit. It is martial in origin, but embraces little or no element of danger. It teaches control of the body, but does not push the body to its limits. Shoji Nishio, one of aikido's great masters, speaks of this kind of aikido in his book Yurusu Budo when he says, "In many settings these days, aikido is becoming little more than a kind of health exercise pursued by the elderly, and women and children."

My impression is that many people embrace this kind of aikido, and I (unlike Nishio Sensei) have neither the wish nor the authority to question them. But for my part, I am not particularly interested in aikido of this sort. I joined the club looking for a martial art. And while this kind of aikido might well be art, I don't think it's martial. What's more, it isn't much of a workout.

My humble sixth-kyu assessment is that there are a couple people (a minority of the large cadre of instructors) who sometimes teach this kind of aikido at the dojo. I like them, I respect them, I don't want to question them, and I certainly have no business telling them what or how to teach. I am, as the name of this blog makes clear, a newbie, and my instructors (and most of my training partners) have every right to tell me to stfu n00b. I would be arrogant indeed after a year-and-a-half of aikido to question or criticize the aikido of an instructor. 

But that doesn't mean I want to buy what every aikido instructor is selling.

What I decided during my time off was that, if I am to continue as an aikidoka, if I am going to build an aikido that meets my needs, I need to start being conscious of my goals in aikido and what I am doing in pursuit of those goals. That means, I think, becoming a little more picky about whose classes I attend. Not because I think I know aikido better than my instructors (or anyone else, for that matter), but because I know what I am looking for and I need to start going where I find it.

If this seems a little arrogant to some, I can endure their criticism. My time and my wrist deserve nothing less.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Making Peace With Mediocrity

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.
- Henry Ford

I admit it: I'm never going to be a great martial arts master or champion. If I ever had a chance to accomplish something like that, I have surely missed it.

I'm not old, or even middle-aged, but I'm already nearing the age at which professional athletes either retire or become their teams' "veteran leaders". I know my body does not have the potential it had ten years ago, and moreover I know that the vast majority of people who become great achievers in any physical sport--the martial arts included--master the basics of their sport when they're teenagers or younger. That opportunity is long gone for me.

The world is full of 30- and 40-year-olds who start martial arts training believing that, if they train hard enough, they can become great warriors capable of taking on hordes of opponents Bruce Lee-style. Most people who have have no emotional investment in the martial arts find this kind of thinking laughable, and I'm with them. I have no such illusions.

I have no doubt offended some aikidoka with what I have written so far. "But Matt," I can hear them protest, "my instructor didn't start aikido training until he was an adult. He's in his sixties now and is still getting better. He just earned another dan rank."

This is a popular sentiment in aikido, and in many cases there is much truth to it. It needs clarification, though.

When we say that aging martial artists are still "getting better", what we mean is that they are still learning. Their understanding is still increasing, which means that they are probably becoming better instructors and may even be performing techniques more correctly than they were when they were younger. But we are fools if we think this keeps them from becoming weaker or slower with age, and even greater fools if we think becoming weaker and slower doesn't make a difference.

Me, I'll likely be just getting my black belts as the weaker and slower start setting in--and I was never particularly strong or quick to begin with. I'll most likely have children by then, too, which means I won't have the time to train every day or the money to have my pick of instructors or programs. The best I can hope for at this point, then, is a long struggle to become, and then to remain, a mediocre black belt in two martial arts that have largely been watered down for mass-consumption.

Maybe this doesn't sound like much to you, but I'm pretty excited about it.

I have the opportunity to learn something new every time I step onto the mat between now and the day I can no longer stand. I have an enjoyable, interesting, and enlightening way to keep myself active and healthy for years to come. What's not to like?

So many of us, I think, cling to the unrealistic hope of becoming like The Karate Kid's Mr. Myagi, in old age taking on five young black belts at the same time. I think there would be less of this if more of us realized what a privilege it is to be an ordinary martial artist. I, for one, am looking forward to many years of happy mediocrity.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Searching for Morality in Martial Art

A few weeks ago I introduced my small readership to a much better and much more famous online martial arts writer than myself, Rob Redmond of 24 Fighting Chickens. In that entry, I examined my own martial arts in light of one of Redmond's biggest criticisms of modern Shotokan karate practice: a failure to embrace martial artists' individual creativity.

As I continue to read Redmond's work, a few more recurring points are starting to jump out at me, and one in particular cuts very deep for a practitioner of aikido and taekwondo.

In spite of many advertisements' and anecdotes' claims to the contrary, Redmond suggests karate is not a noble pursuit, and does not make its practitioners into more moral people. This widespread selling point of karate training, is, to Redmond, largely nonsense. Harsh sentiments, especially coming from someone who so obviously loves the art.

I must admit that one of my goals when I began martial arts training was to make myself into a better person. I have even suggested on this blog that the lofty moral goals of aikido and taekwondo justify my preference of them over more realistic and practical arts. So this crticism of Redmond's is a little more uncomfortable for me to turn on my own arts than the last.

Can aikido and taekwondo really make me into a better person? What if they can't--have I wasted the last year-and-a-half?

In light of history, a few concessions must be made right away. Being a master of aikido didn't keep Steven Seagal from cheating on three wives in a row, or Clint George from exploiting an underaged student. And being a great taekwondo champion didn't keep Angel Matos from kicking a referee in the face on international television. Obviously, then, training in aikido or taekwondo, even the kind of training that produces world-class skill, does not automatically produce exemplary moral fiber or exceptional restraint.

But I can't shake the feeling that aikido and taekwondo have changed me in some way. In "In the Presence of Mine Enemies", I suggested that I have found more perseverance and discipline in myself in the time I have been training. It's nothing revolutionary or life-changing, perhaps, but I think I'm a little more likely to hit the gym, empty the dishwasher, or take out the trash than I used to be.

Redmond, though, would caution that none of this makes me a more moral person (see the second 24FC article link above). The willingness to persevere through displeasure or discomfort in pursuit of a goal can be used to acheive good or evil, depending on the goal.

Another thing I think has improved a little in the time I have been training is my confidence. This is probably the biggest martial arts selling point; nearly every for-profit dojo or dojang in the country promises to improve your children's confidence. But confidence, like self-discipline, says Redmond, is amoral. Confidence can lead to bullying and snobbery just as surely as it can lead to championing any noble cause.

So far, I have determined that I have perhaps increased in perseverance and confidence some small bit through martial arts training. Anything else? What about the other popular claims martial arts instructors like to make? Have I become less violent? More respectful? More resistant to temptation? A better citizen? A better husband?

Honestly, I don't think so. For my part, I have noticed no such thing.

The best I can say of the martial arts, then, is that they give us tools. Perhaps I can use these tools to affect positive changes in myself and the world around me, but I can just as easily use them selfishly and perhaps become an even less moral person than I was before I began.

The only conclusion to be drawn here is that my martial arts are only as noble and moral as I am. Rather than expecting to find morality in the martial arts, I should be looking for it in myself and bringing it with me to the dojo.

How to Get My Attention

Yesterday, I happened upon the very closest thing to a perfect martial arts school web site I have ever seen. I was literally trying to contact this place within 45 seconds of seeing the site. Here it is:

Mind you, this is not the front page; this is the entire site. Without watching any videos, enduring any cheesey music, scrolling through any lengthy mission statement, or even clicking any links, I am provided with exactly what is being taught, exactly who is teaching it, exactly when it is being taught, exactly where it is being taught, and what deals are offered to students.

Sure, the paragraphs at the top of the left column are a little corny, and the whole thing is excessively capitalized. But I don't care. In a quick glance, I already have most of the information that I would ask for in an e-mail, much of which the average for-profit taekwondo school is unwilling to give me unless I talk to them in person.

Oh, and that part about "No Contracts or Registration Fees"--I have to admit, that helps too.

I understand that martial arts schools need to attract the attention of children and parents, most of whom know nothing about the martial arts, to stay in business. But in order to stay relevant in a world where krav maga and MMA sportfighting are as accessible as karate, traditional martial arts--that is, the kind whose practitioners wear pajamas with colored belts--also need to attract and keep grown-ups who are serious about their arts.

I wonder what might happen if, rather than trying to dazzle us with logos, sort-of-true histories, strategically-placed quotes from parent testimonies, full-length instructor biographies, and action-packed videos, martial arts establishments simply told us what, when, where, and how much and let the quality of their training speak for itself. Maybe the world of for-profit marital arts instruction would crumble around us.

But I can say this much: it worked on me.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Martial Arts: Serious Business

Last Thursday night, plagued by a nagging wrist injury and still not sure I was getting everything I wanted out of my aikido training, I payed a visit to a nonprofit Shotokan karate club on the north side of Milwaukee. If nothing else, it was certainly an educational experience.

First of all, I learned karate is not all that much easier on an injured wrist than carefully practiced aikido. This seemed strange to me, since I haven't found the same to be true of taekwondo, which is similar to karate in many ways.

There were other lessons, though, that were much more profound.

To this point, I've mostly had experience with the more lighthearted side of martial arts training. I don't mean to suggest that the people I train with don't take their arts seriously enough or try to do their best, but there has never a question of why we're all there: we enjoy martial arts training. Training in the dojo or dojang is not primarily a matter of honor, devotion, or even necessity for us. We train to get a workout and to do something we enjoy.

What I found at this karate club, though, was very different.

We ran to line up at the beginning of class. We bowed as we were curtly ordered by the senior student, first to the shomen (we were in a gymnasium--where was the shomen?), then to the instructor. We stood silently as the instructor introduced me to the class, then lectured on the history of Japanese karate and how serious an undertaking karate is. He told me that some people cry when undergoing the training he starts to deal out at purple belt level.

No one else spoke. No one smiled.

Kihon (basic techniques) were done as military-style drills with the instructor barking orders every step. Kata were done in a similar fashion, though the instructor softened a little while teaching me the first kata. We never got to any kumite (sparring); I suspect this was a basics-heavy class for my benefit.

At no point did anyone other than the instructor speak, except rarely for clarification of instructions, and I'm not sure I ever saw anyone smile.

Before and after class, the other students were friendly enough, and the instructor was a genuinely nice guy--even if he had a hard time keeping his low opinion of taekwondo to himself. He was very complimentary about the aikido club and showed real interest in my difficulties with the wrist injury.

What I couldn't wrap my head around was why all the friendliness had to be put away before stepping out on the dojo floor. I have read the Dojo Kun and the Niju Kun; there's nothing in there that says karateka aren't allowed to smile. Why do these students keep coming every week if they're not going to try to enjoy themselves? Are they preparing for duels? Do they think that a smile or (heaven forbid) an occasional laugh will weaken their punches?

I must confess, my understanding is limited here. My martial arts training to this point has been in aikido, an art whose founder believed in training joyfully, and taekwondo, an art that is not afraid to be honest about its identity as a sport. I don't understand why anyone would pay to undertake training and then not try to enjoy it (I suppose it's possible that there are a few people who genuinely enjoy maintaining a perpetual grimace while a little man sternly barks orders at them in Japanese, but there can't be very many).

The only guess I can make is that some people think martial arts training is too big a deal to be treated like a mere sport. All that ritual and silence and furrowing of brows must convince some people that they are becoming genuine warriors rather than just hobbyists.

To me, there are two things wrong with this attitude. First, the martial arts, as fun, interesting, and valuable as they are, don't deserve to be elevated to the level of a religion. Second, most of us, no matter how hard we try to be something more, really are just hobbyists. We have (at least) families and jobs that will always be more important to us than martial arts training, and rightly so.

Needless to say, I won't be returning to that karate club. If I ever do leave the aikido club (it seems less likely every time I go looking), it will be for someplace where the instructor has a sense of humor and I'm allowed to behave like the hobbyist that I am.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Art Isn't Easy

When I'm in a songwriting rut and my guitar lies dormant in its case on my floor for weeks at a time, the cure is to start listening to new music. I put in a new CD (yes, for me it is usually still CDs) and listen to it several times in a matter of days, picking up on new chords, new kinds of melodies, new lyrical ideas. Soon, I feel compelled to try my hand at these new tricks.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that my return to blogging has been brought on by the discovery--and subsequent devouring--of the collected works of an online martial arts writer, Rob Redmond of 24 Fighting Chickens. Redmond is a lifelong karateka who writes with a biting wit. His observations about karate have implications that reach far beyond his own art.

One need only read a few of his short pieces to discover a pervasive, recurring theme: his fear that modern karate students are not being taught to cultivate their own creativity, and that, consequently, karate is becoming a stagnant set of techniques rather than a living art (look here for probably the clearest example of this).

Much is made nowadays of whether or not the martial arts are truly martial, but Redmond seems to stand alone in asking an equally important question: are they truly arts?

Almost immediately, I felt a need to turn Redmond's scrutiny on my own martial arts. Of course, my creativity is limited by my inexperience, so I can only go so far with this, but still I came to some interesting conclusions almost right away.

Taekwondo, which I confess I myself use mostly as an exercise program, seemed to catch fire and burn almost instantly in the heat of Redmond's criticism, at least the WTF/Kukkiwon style of taekwondo in which I dabble.

In order to serve as a diplomatic tool for the nation of South Korea, taekwondo has been roughly forced into the molds of (A) a universally accessible worldwide sport and (B) an ancient, indigenously Korean martial art. To fulfill A, taekwondo forms and exercises have been rigidly systematized to the extent that one can reasonably expect two students from two different parts of the world to be practicing virtually identical taekwondo. To fulfill B, those same forms and exercises have been given the trappings of historic national treasures which must be preserved.

The result of all this is that the only real place for creativity in taekwondo is in the sparring ring, which frankly has never been my favorite part of the dojang.

Aikido, at least as I have come to know it, stands in stark contrast to this. When I first joined the dojo, five of the six active instructors were students of the same sensei, and yet all had very different styles of aikido. I would go to the dojo one night and learn a technique, then come back two nights later and be shown a very different way of doing the same technique by a different instructor. Instructors taught smaller students and larger students to do techniques different ways to suit their bodies rather than trying to make all their students into technical facsimilies of themselves (or of their sensei, or of whomever).

What I found in the dojo was a group of people who did try to keep the traditions of their art, but also tried to build on them. Students (even beginners like me) were encouraged to figure things out for themselves and find what worked for them, to become real artists rather than (as Redmond puts it) "human storage devices in which something valuable is preserved intact for all time".

This contrast between aikido and taekwondo never really occured to me before Redmond got me thinking. It's strange; I have devoted huge swaths of text to exploring the differences between the two arts (swath, swath), but have never thought to explore this particular difference before. It may be that this difference is more important than all the others.

What, then? Shall I quit taekwondo and pursue aikido exclusively, in the interest of being a true artist? Well, no.

I still love the simplicity and physicality of taekwondo, and it's still a much more fun workout than sitting on a stationary bike. And to be honest, there's still a shallow, childish part of me that longs for that gold-lettered black belt that I don't have to hide under a hakama. I've tried to kick the taekwondo habit before; it's just not working for me.

But integrity (the second tenet of taekwondo!) demands that I put the kicks and the kihaps to the service of real art. And in light of these new discoveries, that probably means for me eventually transplanting what I can from taekwondo to aikido. It doesn't sound easy, and I suspect I'm not yet at a level of martial expertise that I can do that on a conscious level yet, but it's something I'll have to look out for.

It was a task I hadn't given much thought to undertaking before. But now, thanks to some philosophical intrusions from Mr. Redmond (damn him!), I suddenly care.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Aikido for the Classroom, Part II

No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength.
- Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

I had to restrain a really, truly violent student for the first time two weeks ago.

For the sake of those involved, I won't go into details. It's enough for now to say that when I arrived to respond to a frantic distress call, the situation was already well beyond any solution but physical intervention. A very large, very angry adolescent needed to be stopped now, and I was going to have to be the one to do it.

Procedures were forgotten. Training was forgotten.

I should have known better, of course; besides my regular training in aikido, I had been through training specifically for situations like this through the school system. But I charged in mindlessly, shoving a desk out of my way, with no plan except to be bigger and stronger than the student.

The trouble is, I almost wasn't.

I like to think that regular martial arts training and exercise makes me a little stronger than the average musician/teaching aide, but hell hath no fury like the pent-up rage of a large tweenager. It took everything I had to stop his charge without hurting him, and a little more I didn't know I had until then to avoid hurting myself. Had he been any bigger, or had I been any smaller, I likely would have failed to stop further violence.

What did I do wrong? Well, nothing. And everything.

The hold I tried on him was indeed one prescribed by my training, but it only barely worked. Not because I was doing it incorrectly, but because I wasn't really big enough or strong enough to pull off this particular hold on such a large student. Had I kept my presence of mind, I might have realized that it was too risky to try and pull this off with brute strength, started my half of a more appropriate two-person hold, and yelled for help from one of the other adults in the room.

But I didn't. I gave my mind over to instinct, and started a contest of strength. Thankfully, I won this one, and prevented any further violence or injury. But I must admit, I got lucky.

What have I been learning in a year-plus at the dojo if not to stay centered and avoid dependence on strength? Apparently, I haven't learned it enough.

One thing I learned in this instance, though: I've got a lot more training to do.

Monday, April 4, 2011

No Replacement

Every few weeks, I decide to look into what martial arts options I have to choose from besides aikido.

This has been going on since just a couple months after I started training: I'll have a particularly fun taekwondo class or a bad day at the dojo and decide I need to see if there's something out there that won't hurt my joints so much, or frustrate me with mystifying connection exercises, or make me wear a skirt. Then it's time to fire up Google.

The list of links that results from my search I have pretty well memorized.

There are some that make me turn away immediately: two branches of a cheap Midwest-wide taekwondo chain that promises a black belt in three years; a "dojo" where the uniforms are red, white, and blue and the martial art taught, as far as I can tell, is called "martial arts"; and a mixed martial arts gym whose website is awash with pictures of large, angry-looking shirtless men who seem ready to jump out of my computer screen at any moment and beat me into submission.

It's easy enough to cross these off the list right away. There are plenty of more attractive options, though.

The dojang where my taekwondo instructor learned his art isn't too far. Rates are relatively affordable, though still twice as much as the dojo's, and the founding master is from the Korean old school that does not approve of cross-training and pushes an entirely false nationalistic history of the art.

Just across the street from the dojo is a place where traditional Japanese arts are taught by a very well-known instructor. My taekwondo instructor and one sensei at the dojo are both former students of his and very complimentary. The rates there, though, are more than three times what I'm paying now, certainly more than I could currently afford.

One place that looks particularly interesting is a well-reviewed Shorinryu karate dojo that also dabbles in kendo. To get the individual workout of a stand-up art and yet keep in kendo the weapons training and Japanese-ness I've come to enjoy in aikido is an appetizing prospect. Alas, this place too is quite expensive, at least if I want to participate in any of the weapons work.

It goes on like this. Every option on the list either makes me turn up my nose or say wistfully, "That would be nice, if only..."

Except for one. The third or fourth result on the list is always a small nonprofit aikido club fifteen minutes from home and a scant five from work. The rates are reasonable. The schedule is accomodating. Weapons training is part of the regular curriculum. There are several qualified instructors, each with a unique approach to the art.

Check, check, check, and check.

So it was the first time and so it has been every time since then.

I have said  before that aikido is not, for me, some kind of ultimate or ideal martial art. Some of my instructors and training partners see it that way, but for me, aikido is just what I found when I went looking. That said, I keep looking, and I keep finding it. Maybe I should take a hint.

Besides, the joint pain passes. The confusing exercises are few and far between. And the skirt? Well, I can cross that bridge when I come to it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Boys With Toys

Though a beginner, I do consider myself a serious martial artist. I strive at all times to approach the martial arts as a serious pursuit, and have a tendency to look down on those who treat them like childhood playacting. Aikido, with its (relatively) safe kata-style training, its ritualistic kneeling and bowing, and its traditional weapons and garb, is particularly susceptible to the playground mindset, and attracts no small number of fantasy enthusiasts looking to get their geek on.

I like to think that I'm above all that, but the truth is that I'm a fantasy enthusiast myself. I spent my youth absorbed in novels, role-playing games, and video games full of romanticized medievalism. Every time I step onto the mat, there is a great temptation to wrap myself in childish fancy. Usually, it's a temptation I can resist, but there is one thing that still always brings out the nerd in me: the bokken (wooden sword).

Throughout my formative years, I rolled dice and pressed buttons to pretend I was swinging a sword. So the first time I took a bokken off the rack, bowed, and took up a kamae (stance), I was in nerd heaven. Repetitive suburi exercises became samurai training out of  a bad Eighties movie. Kumitachi (paired sword kata) was particularly geektastic, creating the feeling of being in a samurai duel.

I'm slowly getting the nerd moments under control, but the thrill of actually doing something I'd previously given up to the realm of fantasy never really goes away. And I can't help thinking that it should.

A serious martial artist, it seems to me, ought to be able to puruse the martial arts for what they are, not what he can pretend they are. If all I'm doing in the dojo is getting my fantasy fix, then I'm not a martial artist at all.

Black Belt columnist Keith Vargo expresses similar sentiments in a 2002 article called "Star Wars Geeks" (you can read it in its original context here, but I found it in Vargo's 2009 book Philosophy of Fighting: Motivations and Morals of the Modern Warrior). He warns that if we forget the practical elements of our arts in favor of fanciful play, we are danger of becoming "costumed buffoons like those rabid Star Wars fans, aping an epic story instead of creating one for real with our lives".

I'm not sure I want my life to be an epic story, but I am sure that I want more from my martial arts training than regular opportunities to be a "costumed buffoon". Still, I do put on the costume, I do swing the sword, and I do get a thrill from it that has nothing to do with real martial art.

Can I do both? Can I be an honest martial artist and a giddy fantasy nerd at the same time? I hope so, because the giddy fantasy nerd dies hard.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In the Presence of Mine Enemies

I write this from the site of my greatest defeat in life.

My wife is currently suffering from an injury that prevents her from driving, so I am her chauffeur to and from this evening's night class. She is now working on her master's degree at the same small private college where we first met ten years ago as music students. That time, she left with a bachelor's degree.

I did not.

I wasn't a wild partier or a headstrong rebellious type; that would make for a much better story. The truth is that I simply paralyzed myself with a  poisonous combination of fear and apathy. The more complex a task, the more I feared to face it. And the more I feared, the more likely I was to seek escape in my guitar, my friends, or my roommates' video games.

Of course, there is really no escape, only ignorance. I ignored my way through four years of college, and then left with a lot of debt and no degree to show for it.

My failure here at the college is a weight I carry constantly, one that holds me back both personally and professionally. I work at a school now, trying to help kids stay the educational course. But why should they listen to me? I didn't stay the course; I couldn't. Who am I to tell them they can?

On occasions like this, when I am forced to revisit campus, the wounds are opened anew. Just down the hallway from the lobby where I now sit waiting for my wife is the classroom where I attended my first CSS (college success seminar) with a group of freshmen. I was full of hope and wonder then, excited about the four coming years and about the future to which I thought they might lead me. It just feels like a cruel joke now.

I'm like Dickens' Miss Havisham, frozen in time and immersed in the tangible souvenirs of my worst moment.

I have come to think of this place as an old opponent who has defeated me and who holds it over my head whenever I am forced to endure his company. He isn't rude or boastful, mind you, but we both know who won. And his smug smile is much more reminder than I need.

Tonight, though, I find my attitude toward this place is changing just a little. I have a glimmer of hope now that I might be slowly turning into a different person from the lazy, insecure kid who first walked this hallway more than a decade ago. It's not that my failure has become less of a burden, but perhaps now it seems a little less permanent.

That kid, I think, would not have been able to endure a year-plus of the rigors and frustrations of marital arts training, nor keep up a regular exercise routine simply for the sake of being an honest martial artist. The interest would have been there, but he would have missed a week when he was sick, or busy, or just not in the mood, and then never gone back.

It is a comforting thought, that in aikido and (to some lesser degree) taekwondo I might be chipping away at the ground that hides a more responsible, perseverant man.

Someday soon, I will have to go back to school. Perhaps it will even be here; It's possible that I still have credits here that will not transfer to anywhere else. It's a daunting prospect, stirring up memories that continue to intimidate and antagonize me.

But through the lens of the dojo, I see a glimpse of myself as a man who just might be up to the task. Maybe next time, rather than hiding from college behind piled-up walls of distractions, I will meet my old opponent eye-to-eye.

Maybe next time, I'll straighten my hakama, smile, bow, and say to him, "Onegaishimasu."

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Changing of the Guard

But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards

- Bob Dylan, "Changing of the Guards"

This year has been marked at the dojo by the loss of instructors.

One sensei, a former football player and judoka, finally needed to get a hip replaced after a lifetime of abuse in sport and the martial arts. He'll be back, but we don't know when. Another, well into his seventies and a recent veteran of two surgeries, is simply not physically capable of training (at least  as we do in the dojo) on a regular basis anymore. Still another, our primary weapons instructor, is taking a "leave of absence", though I don't know why or for how long.

We do not have a shortage of instructors. We still have three who were teaching before this momentous turnover, two yudansha (black belts) who joined us in the middle of the year, and one more who has recently earned his black belt and begun teaching. Still, the change hit many of us hard, especially beginners like myself.

I'm still learning what aikido is, how it works, and what it means in my life, and half the people who were teaching me that are gone. They've been replaced by capable teachers, but teachers with different ideas about aikido and different methods of teaching it. It's been confusing, to say the least.

Frustrating, too. Two of the lost instructors I mentioned above were the head instructors during the classes I came to watch when I was considering joining the dojo. It was their aikido that convinced me I would be learning a martial art and not a meditative dance. Under some of the new instructors, I haven't always been so sure. There have even been times I've (briefly) considered quitting aikido altogether and finding something else.

Of course, there is nothing else. There is nothing else so modern and yet so clearly connected to a historical tradition. There is nothing else with a philosophy and morality that shine through so clearly in every technique. There is nothing else that provides such a wonderful workout without requiring practitioners to be star athletes  at the outset.

And more practically, there is nothing else so inexpensive and yet so convenient.

By the end of my last post, I had resolved, on account of the above, to suffer through aikido for now and decide somewhere down the road what else was needed in my journey as a martial artist. The same night that was posted, I attended the first class that was taught by one of the dojo's new yudansha (the one I mentioned here).

It was a magnificent class.

His knowledge is astounding, and his understanding of weapons training and its connection to the rest of aikido is something I have been positively craving. Training under his direction was an absolute breath of fresh air. It made my future in aikido seem a little brighter, and made me appreciate what I already had in aikido a little more.

Suddenly, all that whining in my previous post sounded silly and melodramatic. Poor me, I have a dojo full of friendly people trying to help me learn a martial art. Alas, I can only get five-and-a-half hours a week at one-third the price that would get me two or three hours at many private places. Oh hell, three of my six quality instructors are new quality instructors rather than old ones.

To think the prospect of remaining an aikidoka seemed like such a chore only a week ago. What a baby I was.

Right now, aikido is asking me to ride the waves. And an instructor turnover, at least when the turnover provides me with good instructors, is a small wave indeed. All I need to do is approach their teaching with an open mind.

Less whining and more training probably wouldn't hurt, either.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tough Choices

My green belt test was supposed to be yesterday.

The trouble is, my instructor at the Academy is now following USA Taekwondo rules about not promoting his own students, which means that, in order for him to conduct a test, he needs to bring in an instructor from the outside. And, this time at least, that instructor was only available during the school day. That's all well and good for the kids, but of course I'm working then.

Sure, I probably could have worked it out for someone to cover me for the length of a test, but I really don't want to be that guy who looks for enablers so he can do personal business on company time. I told my instructor this; he understands, but since he doesn't have another instructor at his beck and call all the time, my green belt test has been postponed to a date and time to be determined.

Since discovering this, I have slacked off on my taekwondo training in favor of more aikido and shorter workouts. The kids were at a tournament last weekend, so it's been a week-and-a-half since I've actually trained in the dojang. I haven't felt the drive. I haven't been in the mood. It's hard to convince myself to keep practicing for a test without any promise that the test is, in fact, coming.

I can't honestly say I'm sure I'll ever have the opportunity to test. My instructor is not professionally obligated to me the way he is to the kids. What's more, i'm still not sure the Academy, my source of taekwondo, will even be around after this school year. It seems I must return to a rather stubborn question: do I really need taekwondo?

I do have aikido, an art that both challenges and fascinates me. And taekwondo, at least as it is available to me at the Academy, does not really seem to be meeting my needs. The trouble is, there clearly are needs, needs that are slipping through the cracks in my aikido training. That, as I have explained before, is the whole reason I've kept crawling back to taekwondo.

So if I'm going to abandon taekwondo for good, now a more attractive prospect than ever, one of three things has to happen:
  1. I need to find something to replace the physicality and martial mindset of taekwondo,
  2. I need to make peace with the occasional lack thereof in aikido, or
  3. I need to find something that would satisfactorily replace both.
The first option seems impossible in terms of time and money without abandoning aikido, and the third option doesn't seem to exist at all, at least not at an affordable rate on the south side of Milwaukee. So I guess I'm left with the second.

I keep going round and round in these arguments with myself, and aikido and I always end up together at the end. Maybe this is the way it's meant to go.

I think I hear Peter Cetera singing somewhere.

But if I am to be solely an aikidoka, I am, at some point, going to have to address the problems I see in my aikido, the problems I have been trying to address with taekwondo. I'm not singularly obsessed with combat effectiveness, but I do need to be sure that what I'm learning is a real martial art. And right now, I'm not, at least not always.

Maybe there's nothing a not-quite-sixth kyu can do about that within the confines of the dojo. I am more or less at the mercy of my instructors at this level. But if I stay aikido's course and continue to gain experience and skill, the time will eventually come when I must take responsibility for my art, when I must start making it into what I need it to be in my life.

What will that entail? Seeking out new instructors? Traveling to far-away seminars? More crosstraining? Maybe. But whatever it is, I'm almost sure, even now, that it will eventually require something more than just showing up to the dojo at my regular times. Am I ready for that?

I'm not sure. But for now, it seems that, for better or for worse, aikido must be my journey.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Aikido for the Classroom

I spent last Wednesday and Thursday at nonviolent crisis intervention training. This is something required for all staff at the Academy, due to our abundance of students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

The training covered how to deal verbally with a student in crisis, how to escape a violent attack from a student, and how to physically restrain a student as a last resort. It was, as I said, nonviolent crisis intervention, which means all of the above needed to be accomplished without harming the student.

A couple of the other teachers had trouble with this. It bothered them that, in a situation in which they would feel totally justified in striking back, the wellfare of the student remained their legal responsibility. For my part, aikido's precept of minimizing harm to the attacker had already prepared me for this conundrum.

In fact, I found that my meager year of aikido gave me a head start on much of the material covered in the training. The stages of dealing with students in crisis verbally were very reminiscent of the way Thomas Crum applies aikido principles to interpersonal conflict in his book The Magic of Conflict. Some of the physical techniques covered in the training could have come straight from an aikido class.

One restraining hold, for instance, had me next to my restrainee, him bent over, my hip against his, my inside hand on his upper arm and my outside hand holding his hand tight to me, palm-up and elevated above his shoulder. Anyone familiar with aikido will recognize this position:

(Thanks to the Ueshiba Aikido Association for the picture)

We know it from the technique ikkyo.

Indeed, I got so far into an aikido state of mind during our arm grab escapes that when a fellow trainee accidentally grabbed me in a way that hadn't been covered by the training, I had her halfway into katate dori ikkyo before I knew what I was doing.

I suspect I looked rather foolish, grinning like a child as I escaped simulated punches, kicks, arm grabs, and hair pulls, but I was, quite frankly, overjoyed. This was the first time I had been given any indication from the outside world that what I had been learning in the dojo could be applied to something real.

I have complained before that the practical applications of aikido are not always readily apparent at my dojo. It's something I constantly struggle with: trying to keep a martial state of mind while sometimes being presented with things that look and feel more like two-person yoga exercises than martial arts techniques.

But last week, I got to see the physical and ethical principles of aikido at work, in the hands of trainers who knew nothing about aikido but everything about dealing with real crises. It was an encouraging moment for me, one I will try to remember the next time a sensei wants to work on mystifying connection exercises.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Finding Strength in Sparring

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
- Frank Herbert, Dune

Much is made of how unrealistic taekwondo sparring is. There are extensive rules about where and how a participant may hit his opponent, there is no grappling or ground fighting (a cardinal sin in the age of MMA), there is much more kicking than in a typical fight, and participants are extensively padded. What's more, since participants are playing purely for points, strikes and kicks tend to get slappy, more concerned with speed than effectiveness.

I myself have complained that my taekwondo instructor at the Academy spends so much time on sparring. It's not something that's going to be on my test, and I really feel I need more instruction in the basics than I'm getting. And I can see as well as anyone the disconnect between sparring and fighting.

All that said, sparring is one of the main reasons I continue to train in taekwondo, and I think there is tremendous power to be found in it.

I think I saw this power exemplified a few months ago.

We used to have a rather troublesome brother and a sister at the Academy with a notorious family. Their previous school had taken out a restraining order against their father after he made threats against the staff.

The first and last time we had the father in to conference about his daughter, he flew into a rage when a teacher tried to explain something to him he didn't seem to understand. He started screaming that he wasn't stupid and that he had a college degree, and threatened to "fix" the teacher who had tried to explain.

At this point, one of our aides-- I'll just call him D here-- stepped in, and calmly told the father that it was time for him to leave the building. I've seen the security footage of this. The father is a positively massive man, easily over six feet tall and probably more than 300 pounds. He was screaming and waving his hands in D's face, but D stood his ground calmly, repeating himself politely until the father agreed to be escorted out of the building. It was a magnificent performance.

This is the power I am searching for in sparring. In the nervousness, the sweat, and the flurry of fists and feet, I am hoping to meet my pain and vulnerability and make peace with them. Once I no longer fear these things, I will be able to face even the most fearsome of enemies with a smile and a bow.

And that would be a greater power than even the deadliest of techniques.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Facing the Music

There are various Ways. There is the Way of salvation by the law of  Buddha, the Way of Confucius governing the Way of learning, the Way  of healing as a doctor, as a poet teaching the Way of Waka, tea, archery, and many arts and skills. Each man practices as he feels inclined. It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways.
- Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings

My journey into the martial arts has been nothing short of an obsession over the past fourteen months. I have trained, I have exercised, I have read every book I could find, and I have researched every available source on the internet. There are days when it seems the martial arts are the only thing I talk about. My wife, bless her heart, has managed not to complain much, because she knows the martial arts make me happy.

But not so long ago, music made me happy. I spent my evenings in the living room with my guitar, playing old songs and writing new ones. I spent my weekends in the downtown shopping district of Waukesha, Wisconsin, singing at bars or playing outdoor concerts during the summer.  My guitar never used to get put away; it would live in a chair or on the couch for days at a time. Music, more than anything else, has been my life's work to this point.

The opportunities in Waukesha have slowed to a standstill this winter, and the guys in the band have bigger economic problems to worry about than reviving our schedule of low-playing bar gigs. And all the time I spent working on music at home has been replaced by training martial arts, working out to condition for training martial arts, reading books about the martial arts, and now writing a blog about the martial arts.

I haven't written a song since I started training. I'm not sure I've even learned a new song in that time.

There are some, no doubt, who would ask why replacing one passion with another is such a horrible thing. The martial arts are certainly a worthwhile use of time, and the money I was making as a musician was drying up anyway. Why not take things in a new direction?

For starters, as I have mentioned before, I have a talent for music that I do not have for the martial arts, and it bothers me to squander it. What's more, music has been an important part of my life for a long time: it's the legacy that my mother and father passed to me, it's what brought my wife and me together, and it's how I met many of my friends. It's not something I can just throw away now.

There's more to it than that, though.

According to the samurai Confucianist philosopher Nakae Toju (Cleary, p.31-42), a man's practice of the martial arts is an extension of his sense of justice, while his practice of the cultural arts like calligraphy and music is an extension of his sense of humanity. Furthermore, says Toju, the sense of justice and the sense of humanity must inform one another to be complete and genuine: humanity without justice is weak sentimentality, and justice without humanity is cold ruthlessness.

In order to be the man I want to be, the man I want the martial arts to help me become, I need to cultivate my humane self and my just self, in order that they might cultivate each other. I need to be an artist and a warrior. To abandon my music in favor of the martial arts would, in the end, be a betrayal of the cause the martial arts were intended to serve in my life.

So what am I going to do about it? Well, in the long run, I'm not sure.

But tonight, I think I'll reacquaint myself  with a few old songs.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How I Got Here

I have been asked before how I chose aikido as the martial art I wanted to train. The truth is, I didn't.

I never painstakingly researched the relative merits of different of martial arts. I never asked for a lot of input from experienced martial artists on what would suit my goals or my body type. I never took introductory classes in different martial arts to see how they felt.

What I did do was go online and look at the web site of every martial arts training center within 20 miles: taekwondo dojang, judo dojo, kung fu center, whatever. If what I saw looked interesting and there was an e-mail address provided, I shot them an e-mail asking for more information.

My questions were, I thought, pretty reasonable ones. What styles did they teach? How much did they charge? When were their classes? As it turned out, nearly all of the people I contacted were unwilling to part with even this most basic information. The responses were all the same: come on in, see a class, and we'll talk about it.

I, for one, didn't want to devote an evening to seeing a class and listening to the instructor's pitch if I didn't think the program would fit my budget or my work schedule. So most of these places never heard another word from me.

A funny thing happened, though. The e-mail I sent to a small nonprofit aikido club got a reply in an hour-and-a-half. The reply gave detailed information on the club's class schedule, fees, and monthly dues. The dues were reasonable and the classes were mostly at times when I could attend, so I decided to go see a class.

I liked what I saw at that class, so I went to another class. I liked what I saw at that class, too, so I decided to join the club.

In the end, I chose a dojo, not an art. Rather than trying to judge the relative merits of the different arts available to me (something I was wholly unqualified to do), I went to the place where the people had been forthcoming and honest with me.

I suspect I am not unique in this. How many other would-be martial artists are out there who have decided not to pursue the martial arts because every instructor they contacted came on a like a used car salesman? If more private martial arts establishments dealt with people as openly and honestly as that small nonprofit aikido club, I might be paying twice as much or more for karate or jujutsu somewhere else.

Private instructors, are you listening? I could be paying for your kids' braces right now if only you'd been willing to tell me what, when, and how much.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Haters Gonna Hate

Anyone who spends much time talking about the martial arts on the internet (which, as evidenced by this blog, I do) rapidly becomes aware of a very vocal e-contingent of anti-traditionalists.

They are all over YouTube, hurrying in droves to insult and belittle videos of taekwondo belt tests, karate kata, and aikido demonstrations. They are ready at a moment's notice to harshly assert their opinions on others' martial arts choices (not that anyone asked) on any message board, whether or not it is a martial arts message board.

To them, if you're not training in one of a select few modern full-contact martial arts, you're not really a martial artist at all. And they'll tell you so. And if you insist on suggesting your way has any kind of value, get ready for a caps lock firestorm.

What's a traditional martial artist to do? Ignore them? I do plenty of that, for sure. The problem with just dismissing them outright, though, is that they're a little bit right.

No matter how long or how hard I train in aikido and taekwondo, I'll probably never be able to stand toe-to-toe with a Muay Thai kickboxer or competitive mixed martial artist who has trained as hard as I have. If the martial arts are defined simply as methods of fighting, there is frankly no reason at all to train in aikido, taekwondo, karate, or kung fu when one has Brazilian jujutsu and krav maga to choose from.

I need to accept this truth in order to move past the criticism: not that I can't learn real martial skills from traditional arts, or that I shouldn't strive to make my arts as effective as possible, but that there are other arts which, given all equals, are probably more effective. When this truth ceases to be a shock to me, it ceases to be a weapon that can be used against me.

The next step is to understand the other reasons I practice my arts. Aikido was founded by O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba with the goal of teaching us to live as one with the world around us. The country of South Korea embraced and formalized taekwondo with the goal of building healthy bodies and respectful, courageous citizens. If I can accomplish these goals for myself, and pick up a few valuable martial skills along the way, then I have succeded, and my arts are valid.

And if that's not good enough for the anonymous self-appointed champions of modern fighting styles, then I think I am perfectly justified in ignoring them.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What If...

The word has come down from on high: there is a slight chance that the Academy will not be around next year. I won't go into the details, except to say that some people in the school district aren't sure we're worth the trouble of maintaining.

Now, let's set aside the important questions about my job and my future for a second and ask the question most pertinent to the subject of this blog: would the end of the Academy be the end of my taekwondo training?

It's a two-part question. Part one, whether I would have the time or money to pursue taekwondo on my own on top of my aikido training, has no answer yet, since I don't know what my next job would be. What I'll address here is part two: do I really need to continue taekwondo training at all if I'm training in aikido?

It's not an easy question. To be sure, aikido is quite fulfilling on its own. It has made me a healthier, happier, more complete human being. And no matter where my martial arts journey takes me in the future, aikido will always be an important part of my understanding of what the martial arts are and ought to be.

All that said, there are days when aikido training feels more like pondering a koan than practicing a martial art. I'll sometimes go through two hours of aikido without even breaking a sweat and end up confused and wondering what I was supposed to have learned. Aikido is not an art for those seeking a quick gratification or the most strenuous workout.

But taekwondo is. In taekwondo, there is no time for thinking. I find the weaknesses in my technique and I attack them repeatedly. When I'm done, I'm dripping sweat, my muscles ache, and I know exactly what I've learned and what I need to learn next. It's beautiful in its simplicity.

This stark contrast between aikido and taekwondo is something I've explored twice before on this blog (here and here), and both times I came to the conclusion that the simplicity and physicality of taekwondo were things I couldn't give up, at least not yet, despite an understanding that aikido is closer to my heart and probably a more important part of my future as a martial artist.

So what to do if my source of free taekwondo dries up? Do I find the most convenient McDojang in town to continue my training? Do I seek out a reputable master and adjust my schedule to his? Do I start over with a similar martial art, such as karate, which might meet the same needs but use Japanese terminology and etiquette like aikido?

None of these options sound all that appealing to me. And all of them sound expensive.

I hate to say it, but I think that, unless I'm willing to give up aikido (and I don't think I am), the end of the Academy would be the end of my taekwondo, at least for a while. It's a shame, because I think it would be a great loss.

But for all my moaning and groaning, I have aikido. And I think I can love the one I'm with.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Warrior's Workout

On the days when I'm not actually training in the dojo or dojang, I work out in my apartment complex's aforementioned gym. Besides my original goal of losing weight (I lost 30 pounds of my intended 40 and seem to have have hit a plateau since then), I think of it as a martial artist's duty to take care of his body and make sure he is in shape to practice his art.

But what does that mean, exactly? For sure, I need the flexibility to properly perform techniques and the endurance to train them repeatedly. But what else? Do I need the chiseled torso of Bruce Lee? The lean, powerful legs of Jean-Claude Van Damme? The bulging arms of a UFC heavyweight champion?

No doubt, it would be great to see these things in the mirror, and my wife would certainly appreciate them. But (a) are these things really a necessary part of being a dedicated martial artist, and (b) are they worth the time and effort I would have to put in to achieve them?

My wife thinks I already spend too much time in the gym. She's probably right. We rarely get a whole evening together at home anymore, and it seems a little selfish of me to take an hour-and-a-half of that time and devote it entirely to myself. What's more, even the hour-and-a-half isn't anywhere near enough to turn me into a fitness model.

Like most things, it seems this quandry comes down to deciding what's important.

It is important that I don't go back to being the out-of-shape slob I was before I started martial arts training. It is important that my physical fitness be at a level that keeps me at my best in the dojo or dojang. But it is also important that I have plenty of time to sit on the couch and watch TV with my arm around my wife's shoulders.

I like to think that I might accomplish all three of these important things with a well-planned 45-minute workout routine. That's my next goal.

Honey, I know you're reading this. Please don't hold me to it,  least not yet.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Keeping Martial in Mind

I have a couple of instructors at the dojo who sometimes lament that we get so caught up in trying to master the softness and subtlety of aikido that we forget to make sure that our aikido actually works. To be sure, there is a temptation to get lost in the more internal aspects of aikido and end up practicing something that is more meditative dance than martial art.

I suppose there's nothing wrong with that; I'm sure there are plenty of benefits of practicing aikido that way. But I came to the dojo with the goal of becoming a martial artist, and my intention is to use my dojo time to pursue that goal.

This is hard to remember sometimes when the sensei wants to work on connection and softness and ki and I still haven't grasped the basic movements of the technique. It's not that I doubt my teachers have a purpose behind what they're teaching; it's that the purpose is not always readily apparent. And because I don't want to question my teachers at every turn, my unasked questions about purpose and practicality often remain unanswered indefinitely.

No doubt, some of the aikidoka reading this would reply that waiting for answers to reveal themselves and discovery of truth over time are a part of aikido. And they'd be right. But that doesn't make it any easier.

This is one of the reasons, I think, that I haven't been able to give up on taekwondo, despite my previously documented conclusion that aikido is where my future lies. In taekwondo, I never have the opportunity to forget about making my art work on a practical, physical level. If my kick lacks power, it won't break the board. If my kick lacks speed, my opponent will easily block and counter.

Don't get me wrong; it's not that I think taekwondo is a more effective martial art. Taekwondo, with its great emphasis on competitive sport, probably has its own problems in that department. But for me there are many fewer obstacles in taekwondo to the maintenence of a martial state of mind.

This is what I'm hoping to cultivate in my continued training in taekwondo: a martial state of mind, which I can bring back to my aikido training. In terms of physics and technique, I've found very little compatibility between aikido and taekwondo so far. But I still think taekwondo plays an important role in my development as an aikidoka. Whenever I get lazy or bored in the dojo and start to forget that what I'm learning is supposed to be a martial art, I'm hoping my taekwondo habits will be there to slap my wrists.

And there have been days when my wrists have neeeded a lot of slapping.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

In the Mood

"Mood?" Halleck's voice betrayed his outrage even through the shield's filtering. "What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises--no matter what mood! Mood's a thing for cattle or making love or playing [music]. It's not for fighting."
- Frank Herbert, Dune

The good news is that a snowstorm has closed school tomorrow, so I get a day off work. The bad news is that the same snowstorm has closed the dojo tonight, so I am missing an aikido class.

I like classes in the dojo or dojang. Of course, I like them because of the environment, the cooperation, and the qualitiy instruction, but there's more to it than that. On the mat, I have someone telling me what to do. I don't have to decide that I want to keep working on my shihonage or my front foot roundhouse; I just do it because I'm told to. It's quite liberating, in it's own way.

Tonight, though, I have no such luxury. I have no dojo to train in, no instructors to guide me, no training partners to assure me that my mistakes are no big deal. The only way I'm going to get any training in tonight is on my own. And that won't be easy.

There is no room in my apartment to work out with my aikido weapons or perform taekwondo kicks, and the weather in Milwaukee has not been conducive to outdoor training since September. That means that I'm going to have to trudge through calf-deep snow in my workout clothes to the apartment complex's little gym, where dodging treadmills and weight machines will become a part of every poomse and suburi. I'm not really looking forward to it.

But I will go. It won't be out of a sense of honor, or because of some imagined obligation to my teachers, or even, really, for the workout. I'll go because I stubbornly insist on calling myself a martial artist, and I need to keep my conscience clear in doing so.

I should explain. We all sing along with our favorite songs on the radio, but that doesn't give us the right to call ourselves musicians. If I sang only when the urge struck me, I'd merely be a person who sometimes likes to sing. What makes me a musician is the time spent on music when there is no urge: when I'd rather spend Wednesday night at home, but I still show up to rehearse with the choir; or when it's 1 A.M., I'm tired, and the crowd at the bar is down to a few drunk regulars, but I still tune up my guitar for another set.

According to the same thinking, unless I train at the times I don't feel like training, I'm not a martial artist at all.

So I'll be out in the blizzard tonight, on my way to cut, stab, punch, and kick at empty air with wet ankles and chapped lips. I'd a appreciate a ride, but if you just want to drive by and roll your eyes or shake your head, that's fine, too. I won't be offended.

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Mirror for the Soul

The Academy rents its space from a convent, which means that, despite our charter through a public school district, we are often in contact with nuns and religious imagery. While most of the students have come to accept this as just part of the scenery, I still occasionally manage to look at the convent through Christian eyes.

My favorite part of the convent starts on the second floor and stretches up to the third: a big, beautiful Nineteenth Century chapel.

It has lovely stained glass windows, mosaic ceilings, a huge pipe organ back in the choir loft, a smaller pipe organ in the front, marble pillars and altar, the works. The acoustics inside are enough to make a singer like myself salivate. Stepping into the space inspires a strange mix of feelings in me: awe, wonder, insignificance, closeness to God.

The last time I stepped into the chapel (I snuck in for a few moments to listen to the organist practice), a strange thing happened, or rather almost happened. I felt an urge to bow as I went in. Not bow my head in prayer, mind you, but rei, the Japanese bow I perform when stepping into the dojo or onto the mat.

This opens up the floodgates for a staggering number of questions about how the martial arts have affected my thinking and my spirituality in the past year, but I'll start with the biggest and most important: have I begun to equate the martial arts with religion?

To be sure, my martial arts training, especially the aikido, has a spiritual element to it. The kneeling, the bowing, and the ritualized breathing exercises all seem to reach for something more than material. Even some of the warm-up exercises at the beginning of the aikido class are derived from Shinto ritual. But I don't pray to O Sensei (Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido) and I don't go looking for salvation in a kotegaeshi or a side kick. I don't even buy into the more mystical interpretations of ki.

Still, it is clear that my martial arts spirituality is moving into space previously reserved for religious spirituality. If, as I concluded above, the problem isn't that I am affording the martial arts undue religious significance, then the problem must come from the other side, that is, my own observance of religion. There must be some kind of spiritual need I am not filling with Christianity as I am currently practicing it.


Not only have I poked an embarassing hole in my religious self-assuredness, but I have discovered a surprising power of the martial arts. I just used them as a sort of spiritual mirror, looking into them and seeing something about myself that I hadn't been able to see from inside my own head. It's a strange feeling.

What else might I accomplish this way? What else might I find in this new mirror? Maybe I don't want to know.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Less is More, I Hope

The taekwondo instructor at the Academy is on a mission.

Only last year, he seemed a quite traditional-minded martial arts instructor, mixing elements of kali and tai chi into his taekwondo classes, solemnly preaching the tenets all taekwondoists know by heart: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, indomitable spirit. Not that he no longer does these things, mind you, but he seems to have undergone some kind of transformation. He is no longer a mere instructor.

Now he is a coach. A fully qualified USA Taekwondo coach.

He and another one of our staff members are on a full-time crusade to turn the school into one of the top centers of competitive youth taekwondo in the Midwest, if not the country. Oh sure, he's taken our students to tournaments before, as far north as Green Bay and as far south as the northernmost suburbs of Chicago, but he's got a core of students now for whom there are much bigger plans. There have been conversations recently about Oregon and Oklahoma.

It's an admirable mission. Besides bringing more attention and possibly more funding to the school, he's providing an opportunity for serious competitive sport to a school that has offered almost none to its student body to this point. It's particularly great for his more serious and talented taekwondo students, who might now get a shot at exposure to world-class taekwondo on a pretty regular basis. All good news, right?

Good news for everyone except me. I'm a 28-year-old yellow belt with very little interest in trophies and even less talent for competitive athletics. There is no longer room for me in after school classes, and Saturday mornings, which used to be devoted entirely to the hour-and-a-half-long adult class, now play host to a one-hour adult class (even that partially populated by teenage students) and a one-hour kids' class. My opportunities for training in taekwondo are becoming much slimmer, and I must confess to a little bit of self-pity and jealousy.

But Matt, you ask, isn't your instructor's primary duty to the students? Isn't his instruction for adult staff members a free goodwill service that you have no right to take for granted? Hasn't your attendance at the adult taekwondo classes been sporadic even at the best of times? Haven't you even suggested on this very blog that aikido is your first choice as a martial art and your future in taekwondo is limited? Shouldn't you just be happy for your students and proud of your instructor's efforts on behalf of the school?

Well, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Touché. So I'm being petty, irrational, and childish. Thanks for reminding me.

I suppose next you're going to tell me that the solution to all this is to just shut up and train whenever I can. Well, I have news for you, you condescending, judgmental reader. You can't tell me what to do. I make my own decisions, and I decide... to shut up and train whenever I can.

It's true: I don't really have any business harboring indignation about playing second fiddle to a group of younger, more talented, more devoted students whom my instructor actually gets paid to instruct. I guess that doesn't make it all better, but it does make my course of action pretty clear, especially in light of the tenets of taekwondo.

The second tenet of taekwondo is usually known in English as "integrity", but it carries an additional connotation in Korean. I've read some older books that translate it as "humility". If humility, then, is an essential element of taekwondo, then swallowing my pride, taking my one-hour class, and accepting that I'm not anywhere near the top of the priority list makes me a better taekwondoist, right?

I said, right?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Choral Singing and Zanshin

The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating "fuckface" into [Japanese], but it might translate into "emotional intensity" in football lingo.
"Emotional intensity" doesn't cover half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word "zanshin" is loaded down with a lot of other folderdol you have to be [Japanese] to understand.
- Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash

Usually, when my sensei at the dojo brings up zanshin, she is reminding me to maintain my stance at the completion of the technique. I am slowly learning, though, that there is much more to zanshin. And the more I learn, the more apparent it becomes that I don't have it.

Zanshin seems to be related to the Buddhist principle of mindfulness. It means being aware and ready before, during, and after a technique. It means devoting all one's attention and energy to every detail of what one is doing. It means total, focused commitment to every motion.

I have a hard time scrubbing a dirty plate with zanshin, let alone performing an aikido technique.

There is a new yudansha (black belt) at the dojo. His style is very different from ours, which often makes him confusing to work with. But sweet Lord, has this guy got zanshin. Every movement of his arm is a deliberate cut with an imaginary sword. There is a purpose for his every step. At the end of every technique, his hands are ready and his eyes wide in anticipation of another attack he knows isn't coming.

When showing his favorite technique, a Saito-style shomenuchi ikkyo, even his little pinky finger is buzzing with zanshin. If you think I'm exaggerating, it's only because you've never seen him. He even bows with zanshin.

I used to wonder what I must look like to him, haphazardly hacking my way through the steps of a technique, missing all the little details, and then congratulating myself for getting to the end, with no thought crossing my mind of maintaining a constant energy.

I say "used to wonder" because I think I figured it out last night at choir rehearsal.

Now me, I'm the son of a choir director, a veteran of classical choirs since age twelve, and an extensively trained classical baritone. If I do say so myself, I'm practically a professional. Most of my fellow choir members I tend to think of (rather condescendingly, I admit) as "church choir singers". They sound just fine, but to a snob like myself, they seem to be lacking something: an energy, an urgency, a deliberateness.

I sing with intensity. My pianissimo has as much energy as my fortissimo. I put all my effort into the shape of every vowel, the enunciation of every consosant, the timing of every rest. My back is straight, my shoulders are rolled back, and my folder is always held just so.

The choir sang the last note of a piece last night, and then all seemed to relax and shut down as the piano finished the final cadence. Our director made note of this after the music stopped, reminding us that our duty to the congregation does not end until the music ends. I was struck at that moment by how much he sounded like my sensei.

For my part, I didn't need to be reminded. Until a moment after the last note played, my posture remained in place, my music was held up for me to see, and my right hand was ready to turn another nonexistent page. My eyebrows were raised expectantly, waiting for a cue from the director that I knew wasn't coming, and my jaw was loose and ready to open for another note.

This is zanshin, I thought. Up here in the choir loft, I have zanshin to burn. I have all 31 flavors of zanshin.

I have a hard time making connections between my music and my martial arts. I suspect this is because I have a talent for music that is proportional to my passion, and no such talent for the martial arts. But tonight at the dojo as I train my aikido, I will try to find that feeling I have on the choir risers.

I suspect it will be a largely fruitless search, but at least now I have some idea of what I'm looking for.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lovely Lucy and Steady Sally: A Martial Arts Metaphor

A little over a year into my journey as a martial artist, my conundrum remains the same: aikido and taekwondo competing for my time, my energy, and my attention. Aikido seems to be winning, but taekwondo isn't going away.

It was starting my job at the Academy, a school where all the students learn taekwondo as physical education, that piqued my interest in the martial arts to begin with. Taekwondo's beautiful poomse (forms), the acrobatic kicks, the statuesque stances, the rush of sparring with a friend or just punching and kicking pads or a bag. It's exciting, it's a great workout, and it makes me feel like the star of a martial arts movie.

Taekwondo does occasionally come up short in the area of intellectual and spiritual stimulation, though, and there are times in my training when I feel like 28 years old is too late to start conditioning my body to perform head-high kicks when I've never been able to touch my toes before.

When I took my martial arts search outside of work, I found aikido. Compared to the hard, simple punches and kicks of taekwondo, it's very gentle and yet very demanding. Rather than simply striking or kicking my opponent, aikido expects me to harmonize with his movements and take control of him. Sometimes that's no easy task.

I find peace in aikido's traditional ettiquette and ritual, and I find completeness in the fact that its philosophy and ethics are readily apparent in every technique. Sometimes it isn't much of a workout, though, and there are days when trying to understand it feels like trying to grab hold of a shadow. But there is a future in aikido: it keeps my mind busy and expects less of my body. I think the 55-year-old me might appreciate this someday.

I have the age-old man's dilemma: Lovely Lucy on one side and Steady Sally on the other.

Lucy (taekwondo) is, well, hot. She's sexy. She's stylish. She's always doing something fun. She's the kind of girl tough guys fight over and other guys dream about. What guy wouldn't want this girl on his arm?

Maybe she's not the best for clever conversation, and sometimes it's hard to keep up with her. To be honest, she might be a little young for me.

Sally (aikido) is certainly lovely in her own way, but not very glamorous and a little shy. An evening with her is more likely to be spent on the couch than in a club. There are nights when I want to go for a drink or a movie and she just isn't up for it.

If less exciting, she's certainly interesting. Unlike Lucy, she makes a regular habit of reading books without pictures in them. She has less to say than Lucy, but more to talk about. She can be a little demanding emotionally; she's looking for commitment, not just companionship.

She's a good cook. Her house is clean. She's comfortable.

For some time now, I've been flirting with both. I like to think that I can keep this up for a while longer. But I know someday I'll have to choose, and on that day, I'll choose Sally. She's better marriage material, and I'm not going to be young enough to handle Lucy forever. Truth be told, I was more of a Sally kind of guy in the first place.

But right now I'm still young, and I just can't get Lucy out of my head. The beauty and the excitement are too much for a guy to resist. So in the end, I'm back where I started, only a year older. I'm still devoted to one, and I'm still unable to give up the other. I'm about to turn 29, and I'm gearing up for another year of dedicated fence-riding.

If nothing else, it should be a fun ride.