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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.