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Thursday, March 29, 2012

What I Like

I have a former instructor (the friend I mentioned here) who has said to me multiple times, "Once you've seen good aikido, you know bad aikido." He says this to me whenever I say that, because I'm still a relative beginner, I have no business judging instructors. Despite his encouragement, I'm still not convinced I have any business deciding whose martial art is good or bad; those whom I might potentially judge still have every right, I think, to tell me I have no idea what I'm talking about.

That said, the more I train and the more I talk to experienced martial artists, the more confidence I have in deciding what I like. This confidence is what fueled the decisions I started to make in "Aikido for Me" and continue to make as I explore new places to train.

I recently visited a school of Wing Chun kung fu and saw lots of things I like. Does an abundance of things I like make an objectively good club? I, arrogantly, like to think so, but I'm not going to make any such claim here. What I am going to do is make some observations of things that I like, using this club as an example, and try to give readers an idea of what I'm looking for when I visit a martial arts club. You can decide for yourselves whether or not you agree.

I like friendly instructors. A surefire way to scare me off is to begin our relationship by either ignoring me or lecturing me on how serious/important/powerful/difficult your martial art is. I wrote about a Shotokan Karate instructor like this last summer. A good instructor, I think, makes an effort to be someone people enjoy training with.

The instructor at this Wing Chun club was always smiling. He was happy to talk with me when he wasn't too busy with his students, and when he was with his students he was not above joking with them like the fellow adults they are. There are those who believe that this kind of attitude results in wasted time and half-hearted training, but I didn't see any of that at this club.

I like students who look like they're having a good time. There are a few things in my life worth getting really serious about, like my family and my job. The martial arts have definitely made me a healthier and happier person, but they're just not in the family/job category of importance. I have very little patience for those who treat the martial arts as something too serious or too sacred to be merely enjoyed. There are very few of us who really need advanced unarmed combat skills, and those of us who need exercise have many cheaper and more efficient options than martial arts training. If there is no enjoyment, there is no reason to train at all.

The students at this Wing Chun club were obviously enjoying the process of learning their art. They smiled when they discovered new things, they laughed at their own mistakes, and they treated each other like friends rather than animated training dummies. Apparently, there are people who have a problem with this, but I can't imagine why.

I like seeing some students who look like they could beat me up. At this Wing Chun club, I saw a few guys that I definitely wouldn't want to mess with. I don't necessarily believe I'll ever be one of those guys, but I do like to think that my training is the kind of training that those guys find challenging and interesting.

My own discipline of aikido has a reputation for being the martial arts refuge of the weak, the old, and the out-of-shape. It's not entirely true, but it's truer than I'm happy to admit. One of several reasons I'm looking for an alternative to my current aikido club is that I'm tired of training with people who would have a hard time with a few jumping jacks, let alone a live application of martial arts techniques.

That's not to say that instructors who can no longer practice everything they preach are of no value; in fact, they are often great instructors (anyone who has trained with the great Hiroshi Ikeda can back me up on this). No one expects Doc Rivers to be able to get back out on the floor and guard Chris Paul. But in my day-to-day training, I want to work with people who can push my body to its limits. It's one of the reasons I started training in the first place.

I like honesty in instruction. I'm not training to become a vigilante crime fighter, and I hate--hate, hate, HATE--all the arguments on message boards and YouTube about what works "on the street" (the suburban cul-de-sac where you live is not "the street", mmakilla12, and you haven't been in a fight since grade school). All that said, I like to see an instructor doing his best to be honest about what works.

At this Wing Chun club, I heard the instructor say things like, "That's only working because he's letting you get away with it," and, "That's not going to move someone who's a lot bigger than you." He would then show alternatives. He had no illusions about his art being an ultimate fighting style, but he wasn't teaching a dance, either. He looked for things that didn't work like they were supposed to, and corrected them, even when they were executed with good form and had all the aesthetics of good kung fu.

In my own aikido, I struggle (internally, not verbally) with instructors who teach "center" and "connection" but have no time left over for the positioning and unbalancing that make throws and takedowns possible against an uncooperative opponent. The aikido they teach often looks very pretty, but doesn't bring down partners who haven't been conditioned to take falls. I'm sure some people genuinely enjoy this kind of martial arts training; they can have it. I want a reality check every once in a while.

I like seeing students sweat. I don't really feel I've gotten my money's worth unless my gi needs washing after a class. There will be time for tai chi in the park when I'm 80; right now, I want a workout. Like most martial artists, one of the reasons I first got into martial arts training was exercise.

The students at this club worked hard enough that they needed sweat rags and water bottles. Even when they were doing choreographed forms, they practiced with enough energy and did enough repetitions that it worked up a sweat. There are many people who equate traditional, stylized arts like aikido and Wing Chun with yoga and chi gong. Not here. The students at this club, despite their traditional, stylized training methods, were working hard.

I like clubs that keep pretense to a minimum. I am turned off by martial arts instructors and schools that take themselves and their traditions too seriously. I want to laugh at instructors who expect to be called "master". I am baffled by classes conducted in foreign languages students can't even pronounce, let alone understand. And I bristle at students being taught to treat their uniform and gear as religious relics. I think these kinds of things are usually the efforts of overzealous, misinformed Westerners trying to achieve what they perceive to be authentic Asian-ness.

My own experiences with authentic Asian-ness have been quite the opposite. I had the great privilege last fall of training with the aforementioned Hiroshi Ikeda, an internationally renowned master of aikido. When Ikeda Sensei's luggage did not arrive in time for the class, and he had no gi or hakama to wear, he dismissed it with a laugh and taught the class in his jeans and tee shirt. And though he occasionally stumbled over his English, he never spoke a word of Japanese after he greeted us with, "Onegaishimasu."

This Wing Chun club was similarly unpretentious. Clearly, clothing was supposed to be dark and functional, but I didn't see a set uniform. There were belts (sashes, in this case) that showed rank and official club shirts, but not everyone wore them. No one was speaking Chinese, except to call the instructor sifu ("teacher", similar in use to the Japanese sensei). Other than the occasional bow, there were no other Chinese affectations, either. Weapons and other equipment were treated as tools; they certainly seemed well cared for, but there was no sign of worship.

I like up-front information. I have complained before about martial arts clubs that aren't forthcoming with basic information. I regard any club with suspicion that doesn't supply information about rates or schedules until after the prospective customer has heard a sales pitch. Are they afraid their prices will scare me away? Are they gauging my gullibility? No matter how many times I think it over, I can't come up with a good, honest reason a club would conduct business this way.

The first thing the instructor did when I sat down was hand me a schedule, tell me what the monthly rates were, and tell me what was included in membership. He also told me that membership was month-to-month, which meant no contracts. That reminds me...

I like clubs that don't make their students sign contracts. Contracts are, in my humble opinion, a blight on the martial arts landscape. There are those (mostly people who run contract clubs) who defend them, and some even make some pretty good points in the process, but the fact remains that a contract can really only do one thing: force people to keep paying for something they no longer want.

What if I get hurt? What if my schedule changes? What if (as is happening to me now) there are changes at the club and I'm not sure if it's the place I want to train anymore? What if, a few months in, I decide that my body's just not up to the demands of the training that goes on at this particular club? In any of these cases, if I'm locked into a contract, I have to keep paying. Even more frightening are stories I've heard (here, for instance) of clubs that have closed down and sold the contracts to collection agencies, meaning that students have to keep paying for training at a club that doesn't even exist.

This Wing Chun club was not cheap (about $100 a month), but didn't seem to have any trouble hanging onto students without using contracts. And that makes me wonder why so many clubs seem to think they're necessary.

Finally, I like clubs that don't cost a lot. I debated with myself about whether or not to include this last one, because there are many very good clubs--the one I talk about here included--that aren't cheap. But I'm not a rich guy. I'm a lowly special education aide at a tiny little non-union public charter school. I have rent to pay and a baby on the way. I don't have much of a discretionary budget. The martial arts are wonderful, but they're not worth cutting into food and rent for. I can't afford expensive clubs, and I don't think the martial arts can afford to become exclusively a rich man's hobby.

I don't have a clever way to wrap this up; it was never really more than a glorified list. All I can say is, this is what I like. What do you like?

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