Push Without Moving

There’s certainly no lack of different exercises and fitness routines out there. And I usually like to try them all. I’m not saying I stick with everything I try, but variety is the spice of life and what successfully works for one person may not be effective or successful for another. This is why it’s so important to keep an open mind and try different things. This is why the focus of today’s post is an exercise method used by one of the world’s most well-known martial artists: Bruce Lee.

Even if you’re not into martial arts, the safe bet is that you’ve at least HEARD of Bruce Lee, who can be recognized for his speed and martial arts prowess as well as his lean, muscular physique. Lee was a practitioner with very much the same mind set as my own, that the martial arts is a fluid and evolving thing and one needs to keep an open mind and try different things. One of his preferred methods of exercising, besides all the extra stuff he did, was isometric exercises.

In case you’re unfamiliar, isometric exercises are exercises that are performed by contracting muscle groups without moving the specified body part. And example of this would be to place your closed fist against a solid wall and pushing hard. The muscles on your arms will contract and flex without any full movement of the arms (unless your wall caves in, in which you’ve got bigger problems to worry about than fitness!)

Isometrics is an interesting concept, especially if you want to do some strength training but don’t have the room in your home for a weight gym and/or can’t afford a commercial fitness centre’s outrageous monthly fees. For myself, I especially like certain isometric exercises, because they allow me to get some rudimentary strength training in, considering my propensity for selling and/or eliminating all my belongings.

But like everything else in life, there are pros and cons to isometrics, and that’s what I’d like to cover today. I’ll start with the pros, since it’s always more fun to start with the positive:

  1. You can strength train with minimal space: Like I mentioned above, isometric exercises allow you to flex and contract your muscle groups without moving your body. You can do this with the majority of your body’s muscle groups, and you can easily find a batch by searching Google for “isometric exercises”;
  2. It strengthens your muscles rapidly: Isometrics essentially forces you to keep your muscles contracted for a longer period of time than a traditional weight exercise. This means that your muscle is providing a maximum effort for a longer period, which is what causes the muscle damage needed to increase strength. You may only have a second or two of “max effort” during a traditional exercise, but if you hold the pressure during the isometric equivalent for 8 to 12 seconds (which is what’s suggested on Bruce Lee’s workout website) you increase that max effort tenfold;
  3. Isometrics can be done while injured: Now, take this one with grain of salt… I often mention that I’m not a doctor, and I am NOT advocating that you work out while you are injured. But given the nature of this type of exercise, it can be performed without any movement, thereby ensuring you don’t aggravate the injury while continuing your strength training.

Now that I’ve covered off some of the pros, let’s look at some of the cons behind isometric training. I found most of this on the Mayo Clinic’s website, with some of my own thrown in as well.

  1. Isometric training provides limited strength range. Because your limb is sitting in only one position, it’s only strengthened in that one position. One would need to perform isometric exercises in various positions with the same limb in order to improve your strength throughout its full range;
  2. Isometric exercises ONLY improve strength. According to the Mayo Clinic article, “since isometric exercises are done in a static position, they won’t help improve speed or athletic performance.” This means that it’s extremely important to include other types of physical exertion in order to ensure you gain the full benefits of working out;
  3. Isometric exercises can raise your blood pressure. Isometric exercises can increase your blood pressure, and can cause a dramatic increase if you already have high blood pressure issues. So you either need to exercise at a lower level of intensity or check with your medical practitioner before getting too deeply into it. Of course, you should consult your doctor before starting ANY radical change in your workout routine.

There you have it; some good and some bad. A balance, if you will. As should be the case with all things in life. Isometrics looks pretty interesting, and I look forward to trying it out in conjunction with my other stuff. It’s particularly good for people who work at a desk over long hours. It’s super easy to tense, hold and release your abs, gluten, arms and legs while sitting at one’s desk.

The arms might be a bit problematic, especially if you have to, you know, consistently type and stuff… One of the best aspects about fitness is that there’s always something new to learn and try. Everyone is different, so it’s important to find something suited to your likes and needs. ☯

Concentration Goes A Long Way

It stands to reason that over the decades, I’ve been asked about karate and the martial arts on a number of occasions. Many people have made a point of saying that they could never do what I do, as they don’t feel as though they have the physical abilities or the patience to do so. I usually try to explain that there is no specific physical pattern one must have to study the way, and I’ve trained with people who have had debilitating conditions and they’ve still gone on to become skilled martial artists.

Despite this fact, most people are of the opinion that the martial arts is a level of fitness that they could never achieve. The truth is, my body was essentially giving out on me when I started karate. But I stuck with it and thirty-one years later, I have a better constitution than most non-Diabetics of my age group who haven’t studied martial arts. But the biggest question during these conversations is usually what does it take? It often goes a little something like this:

“So you do karate, huh? I could never do that…”

“Why Not?”

“I don’t really think I’ve got what it takes to train in karate…”

“And what, exactly, do you think it takes?”

“I don’t know, I assume you need to be physically fit?”

“Nope.”

“Do you need to be strong?”

“Nope.”

“Well, if you don’t need those things, then what does it take to study karate?”

“Commitment and concentration. With those two things, which anyone can have, you can be successful in the martial arts.”

Now, this is a generalized conversation, of course. But it’s usually the gist of it. I’ve had some colleagues and students watch me when I use a punching bag or practice my forms and I’ve even had some ask me how I put so much power into my strikes. In recent years, this would be where I would insert a Mark Ruffalo joke about how “that’s my secret, I’m always angry.” But I usually like to use the analogy of a bullet versus a fist.

A bullet is a minuscule thing. It usually weighs in at about 40 grams or more depending on the size and caliber, and doesn’t really seem all that intimidating when it’s sitting on a table. If I were to pick up that bullet and flick it at you, it would bounce harmlessly off your chest and fall to the floor. For the most part, a bullet in and of itself is pretty harmless.

But take that same bullet, wrap a bunch of gunpowder behind it and ignite that powder and that same 40 grams of lead will be propelled at about 1,400 feet per second. At that speed, the bullet will penetrate flesh, bone and even some solid structures. The “minuscule” object that was harmlessly flicked at your chest in the previous paragraph is now capable of serious bodily harm. Doesn’t seem so harmless now, does it?

The same can be said of any technique you train with in the martial arts. When you train constantly and consistently, focusing on your form, technique and speed, the size of your bicep really doesn’t matter in terms of what physical power you exert. It all comes down to physics and Newton’s Second Law (F = ma). That formula basically means that an object’s Force (F) is equal to its mass (m) multiplied by its acceleration (a). It doesn’t take a math whiz to acknowledge that the greater the acceleration, even if the mass doesn’t change, the greater the overall Force.

This is why I usually tell people that their current physical state is never a reason NOT to try the martial arts. I know that when you see martial arts’ movies with actors like Jean-Claude Van Damme, you tend to assume that the musculature is a necessary aspect, but it really isn’t. In fact, if you check out any footage of Shaolin monks, they’re generally of average musculature. So the harder and faster you throw the punch, the better and more effective it will become. Same with your kicks and any other striking technique.

I’ve seen people with terminal cancer, heart issues, colostomy bags and even artificial limbs train in the martial arts and even go on to achieve a black belt. One good example of this would be Shoham Das, a young boy I wrote about some time ago in a post entitled Half A Heart, All Of The Will who literally had a piece of his heart missing but trained consistently and has gained black belt level.

The bottom line is that anyone can train and achieve the level they want. All it takes is the commitment and concentration required to keep going, even when it gets tough. This is what martial artists are referring to when they say “mind and body.” If you think you don’t have what it takes to do martial arts but you’ve always wanted to, you should give it a try. You might just surprise yourself. ☯

Slow And Steady Wins The Occasional Race

You know, they say that good things take time and that patience is a virtue. Yeah,… I’ve heard that on occasion. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m usually more of a proponent of hammering through at top speed. Going cycling for 60 kilometres? Nothing slower than 3 minutes per kilometre is acceptable. Practicing karate forms? Maximum strength and maximum speed! If I ain’t sweating, I ain’t happy!

But on occasion, going slowly can be a good thing. Whether you’re weightlifting, doing martial arts or learning a new fitness routine, there are a number of benefits that can be enjoyed if you just take your time and go slowly. According to an article I just read by Fitness Republic, lifting weights slowly can help you to prevent injury, help to maintain your form and people with minimal muscle mass or medical conditions can do it much easier than if they’d be expected to go at normal speed.

One of the key points is that it can also help you to build larger muscle mass. The thought behind this is “[…] lifting slowly forces your muscles to hold the weight longer. […] If you go faster, momentum will do a lot of the work for you, and your muscles will be active for a shorter amount of time.” In fact, the article goes on to explain that lifting slowly will also target your skeletal muscles, which are essential for everyday movement.

I’ve read a few articles where this is the focal point, and most of them agree that slow movements can be beneficial. I became curious about this after my latest MetaShred workout entitled Thermogenic Tempo Training. The workout had you do a set of six different exercises. During the first cycle, you’d lift slowly, hold and release. Then repeat. On the next cycle, you’d lift, hold and lower slowly over several seconds. The third set had me lifting and lowering slowly.

You wouldn’t think that doing exercise slowly would be challenging, but it was gruelling! I had sweat dripping off my forehead in no time. Now, I’ve begun incorporating this process with some of the more basic exercises I perform: squats, push-ups, etc… You ever try to do more than ten push-ups where it takes you several seconds to reach the floor and come back up? It’s painful as hell, and I’ve grown accustomed to doing dozens of push-ups at regular speed but I sure as hell can’t get past ten going slowly. At least not yet.

Without even realizing it, I’ve been training with slow movements all my life. From my very first day in the dojo, I’ve practiced forms and techniques slowly until I grew accustomed to them and could begin to perform them faster. And even to this day, I’ll perform katas slowly and methodically in order to ensure proper form and technique.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with doing a fast-paced workout. But not every workout needs to be a spine crushing cross-fit style lightning round. Sometimes, as with many things in life, it’s better to slow it down and take your time. It doesn’t mean you aren’t still putting a maximum effort into it; it simply means you’re doing it a slightly slower pace. ☯

Ohm, Excuse Me…

Do you have a personal mantra? Do you have ANY mantra? What the hell is a mantra, anyway? The term is used fairly often in modern society. Not a month goes by where I don’t hear someone say, “Oh, yes! It’s my personal mantra…” For the most part, they’re referring to some clever quip or saying that they feel has significant impact on their daily lives and/or their existence. But what is an actual mantra, and what purpose does it serve?

Simply and traditionally speaking, a mantra is defined as “a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation.” Typically originating from the Hindu or Buddhist faiths, the using of a mantra focuses your active mind’s attention in such a way that it allows your thoughts and mind to float freely. It can help with relaxation and does, in fact, focus your meditation. It can be extremely handy if you’re a newcomer to the meditation scene and are having difficulty sitting still or concentrating.

That being said, I should reiterate a point I’ve often made in the past that there are various forms of meditation, from the traditional image most people have as illustrated above, to moving meditations such as Tai Chi or even Yoga. Not every method and/or form will require a mantra, and not every mantra is a simple “ohm.” It can be pretty much anything you choose, so long as it works to help you focus and concentrate.

Personally, I don’t use a mantra when I meditate. I prefer silence or some soft background music with forest or ocean sounds. By focusing on these sounds, I’m focusing my mind. I’ve usually referred to this as an “external mantra.” Silence can also be an effective mantra, since focusing solely on the silence and concentrating on it will have most of the same benefits as an active, repetitive mantra.

Depending on what school of thought you prescribe to, the use of the mantra “ohm” causes a reverberation throughout the body that religious monks believe has spiritual or religious effects on the body. I couldn’t find a stock photo to demonstrate it and I’m too cheap to buy one, but there is a Hindu symbol that represents “ohm,” (also spelled aum or om) and you can hit up Wikipedia under “mantra” if you want to see it. It’s been made popular in such a way that the symbol is represented on yoga gear, jewellery and clothing apparel.

On a last note, a personal mantra is something a bit different. This usually involves a saying or quote that resonates with a person and has a direct impact on how they live their life. Something along the lines of, “Forgiveness is divine, but never pay full price for late pizza…” Anyone who recognizes that quote will understand how badly I just aged myself, but it’s usually something a person repeats or states to themselves or others often but has nothing to do with an actual mantra or meditation.

Although you don’t NEED a mantra in order to meditate, it can be a handy and useful practice to help you focus and concentration when doing so. Sometimes life makes it a bit difficult to find a quiet moment to meditate and a mantra can also help block the outside world. In fact, there are some YouTube videos with hours of mantra chanting, for those who want to have a listen at what it should sound like. ☯

I Will Return To My Shadows

One of the great things about having my childhood (if it can be called as much) take place throughout the 80’s is all the great movies that started to come out. We got the Christopher Reeve Superman sequels (even if they weren’t well received), the last two original Star Wars trilogy chapters and a saturation of “Brat Pack” movies, including The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink (I’m partial to Molly Ringwald, sue me!)

But there is a particular movie genre that also became popular during the 1980’s and it still holds a certain level of fascination to the public, even today. I’m talking about ninja movies. I’m sure you’ve seen at least SOME of these movies; stealthy assassins cloaked in mystery and garbed in black hoods, they seemed almost unstoppable and were usually trained in a variety of weaponry and were usually depicted in the movies as being exceptionally skilled in hand-to-hand combat.

But how accurate was that portrayal? To be honest, there is a common misconception that ninjas are martial artists. And although I’m no ninja myself, I can say for a fact that this isn’t true. The ninja were covert assassins, believed to have existed during the feudal era of Japan. They were basically mercenaries who could be bought by whomever could afford them.

Their preferred method of operation was to spy and assassinate through the use of disguises, deception and avoidance. They considered escape and living to see the conclusion of their mission to be paramount over active engagements or fighting. Because of this, the ninja were often considered dishonourable and the samurai considered the ninja beneath them.

When referring to martial arts circles, people usually tend to immediately associate a ninja with Ninjutsu (or ninjitsu) and consider it to be a martial art. The reality is that Ninjutsu is anything BUT… Ninjutsu, as it is, is classified as a system of espionage and assassination, normally including infiltrating locations, spying and accomplishing specific tasks that included but were not limited to capturing criminals and other individuals, obtaining private information and whatever other tasks that could not be accomplished through conventional means. This explanation clearly does not include the martial arts, which are defined as a means of self-defence.

A ninja would be trained in Ninjutsu and expected to develop some proficiency in a number of different weapons and offensive tools that would allow infiltration without notice, evasion and exfiltration. All of this would happen without the victim(s) even knowing that they are there. Ninjas would often originate from the samurai class and would already have some familiarity with an actual martial art. Since some of their tasks would often unavoidably include combat, ninjas would often train in some form of martial arts as well as the expected weapons and tools of the trade.

So the portrayal you see in the movies, where a ninja suddenly stands up out of a small shadow in the corner of a room to face off against an opponent is far from accurate, although it still makes for great cinema (if you haven’t seen 2009’s Ninja Assassin, I highly recommend it!) And if a martial arts practitioner tells you that he or she is a ninja, then by definition they are not. Especially since the ninja were not in the habit of revealing themselves to anyone outside of their clan. ☯

If You Don’t Like It, Then Split!

It should go without saying that if you train in the martial arts, you’re going to get hurt. It isn’t a knitting class, so you should expect that at some point in your martial arts career, you’ll take a hit. Even for people who have been training for decades, mistakes and accidents can happen. I’m reminded of last year, when one of the fellow black belts in my club cracked me in the nose with an elbow. It stunned me and my nose started bleeding, but I was lucky enough that he didn’t fracture or break it.

Whether by accident during drills or because you zigged when you should have zagged, getting hit is the LEAST of the injuries you could suffer while doing most traditional martial arts, such as karate. I’ve had pulled and torn muscles, damaged ligaments, bruising, hairline fractures and a score of other injuries too numerous for me to name or even remember after thirty-two years of Okinawan karate. But these injuries were sustained due to the necessary aspects of karate that I had to learn, and were mostly accidental.

This is where we discuss what is, in my opinion, one of the most WORTHLESS movements taught in the martial arts: the splits. Surprisingly, there are a number of styles that teach and train with middle splits. Just to be clear, a middle split is the one illustrated above, where you open the legs and hips and lower yourself down to the floor and come to rest on your inner thighs. Although this type of split is generally used in things like gymnastics, it’s also considered a staple in certain martial arts styles that use high kicks, such as Tae Kwon Do.

Don’t get me wrong, Tae Kwon Do is an excellent system (for those it suits) and is absolutely challenging. But I’m a realist and I believe in always examining how effective any technique would be in a real-world application. It’s always fun to learn fancy and flashy techniques that look god in the dojo, but why learn self-defence if the technique you’re practicing can’t be used to, well… defend yourself?

This is where the splits start to give me problems. There is, honestly speaking, no practical application for a full split in the martial arts. Right about now, I can almost hear the chairs of every martial artist reading this, creaking in protest as they hold up their hands and say, “Now, hold on just one damn minute…” But bear with me for a moment as I explain my logic behind this assertion.

We’ve all seen the splits done, either on television or in movies. Some action heroes have even contributed to the wow factor behind doing the splits (I’m looking at you, Van Damme!) and it’s almost exclusively for practitioners who perform high-flying or fancy spinning kicks. And even though we can all agree that receiving someone’s heel to your face after they’ve spun it around once or twice would be an effective deterrent against your continued consciousness, these high kicks come with a batch of problems of their own.

A traditional martial artist will tell you that the smart money is on keeping your kicks no higher than the waist or lower abdomen. the reason for this is pretty simple. If you kick any higher than that, you’re shifting your centre of gravity and putting all of your weight on one foot. For anyone who’s ever been in a fight, I don’t need to explain why this is a bad idea. It opens up a plethora of vulnerable spots EVERYWHERE on your body and leaves you open to getting your ass kicked. High and spinning kicks may be great for breaking boards in the dojo, but they serves very little purpose in actual self-defence.

Next, there’s the issue behind how this split is accomplished. You’re asking something of your body that it wasn’t designed to do. Our bodies aren’t designed to split open at the hips the way is required for a middle split. I mean, you have just about all the different tissues involved in that one movement: muscle, tendons, ligaments… You name it. Not to mention the hip joints and surrounding bones. And most students want to progress as fast as possible and often find themselves taxing their body before it’s ready.

Although some medical sources advise that doing the splits is generally okay, any medical source I’ve read has indicated that the most important aspect is to ensure that you work at it slowly and progressively, accepting that it may take weeks and even months to accomplish a middle split. If you ever do at all. I can split to about half way down to the floor and that’s it. But then, I enjoy and appreciate my groin and don’t want to cause it any damage.

If you’re new to the martial arts and the curriculum requires a full split prior to promoting to a certain belt, be sure to take your time. Stretch properly and work at it slowly. If you’re training for the actual purpose of defending yourself, maybe accept that this style isn’t the one for you and look elsewhere. There are already likely to be numerous injuries in your future without causing the intentional ones. No need to hurt yourself intentionally. ☯

Even When Your Hands Are Empty

There are certain styles of martial art that don’t always strike the observer as being something that would necessarily be effective on the street. And that makes sense, right? Think about something specific, like Kobudo. I’ve studied Kobudo on a rudimentary level, and although I love the fanciness and flourish of a traditional weapon, I would never study it BY ITSELF. The reason for this is quite simple: what if you found yourself without the weapon you trained yourself with?

The same can be said for a number of different arts. Some good examples include Kendo. How do you defend yourself if you’re not wielding a sword? Judo. How do you fight if you can’t get your hands on your opponent to throw them? Really, you can ask this question of many grappling and weapons-based martial arts. this is one of the reasons I enjoy and prefer the traditional, empty-hand fighting arts such as karate. Many, if not most styles not only teach the practitioner how to defend empty-handed, but they usually incorporate some weapons as well to ensure some familiarity.

One perfect example of this concept is a martial arts that has received some reasonably bad press in recent years, due to the very fact that it would likely be less than effective in a true combat situation on the street. I am referring, of course, to the Japanese art of Aikido.

Aikido was developed in the late 1920’s, early 1930’s by Morihei Ueshiba, who wanted to develop a grappling style of martial art that would allow a person to defend themselves using the opponent’s own momentum and energy, all while preventing serious injury to either party. His style was based on another Japanese form of grappling called Daito-Ryu, and incorporated Ueshiba’s core beliefs based on his following of an offshoot of the Shinto religion.

Aikido has received criticism from a number of different and popular sources, mostly because many feel that it lacks the appropriate training in areas that would make it effective in a real-life situation, such as striking and blocking. many have commented that unless your opponent is foolish enough to run straight at you in order to allow a fancy flip using their own momentum.

Granted, I can easily agree that if you put a boxer against someone who studies Aikido, you’d be faced with a situation of who will reach their goal first. If the boxer lands a hit, that’ll be it for the Aikido practitioner. If the Aikido practitioner manages to grapple and throw the boxer, the boxer will have very little in the way of a response to defend themselves. This is why, if you study a grappling art such as Aikido, you should incorporate a secondary style that incorporates striking and blocking as well.

Now, Aikido does include some rudimentary weapons training, but this is mostly as defence against such weapons as the staff, wooden sword and knife. On the whole, Aikido is mainly focused on grappling, throwing and wrist locks in order to redirect and control one’s opponent. It can be an extremely effective tool to be used in combat only IF you combine it with a traditional fighting art.

Even if I believe a person should only ever dedicate themselves to one art, I’m a big proponent of branching out so that a practitioner can experience various different perspectives on how best to defend themselves and others. Aikido is certainly a worthy style to examine if one is looking to do just that. Even if some of the criticisms are harsh, it’s important to make your own judgements. And the only way to do this is by finding your local Aikido school and giving it a shot. ☯

The Most Unlikely Sources…

Something important to bear in mind is that inspiration and learning can come from some very unlikely sources. Every Sunday, I try to choose someone that has taught me something, guided me or inspired me throughout my life. I hate to admit it, but it’s been a challenge. I’ve mainly tried to keep this contained to martial artists, including the likes of Michele “The Mouse” Krasnoo, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Ronda Roussey and even Miyamoto Musashi. All of these folks have had an impact on my life and have inspired what paths I’ve chosen.

But I’ve also made a point of including people who have inspired or guided me in other ways, like my father. Ultimately, we can find inspiration in negative places as well. I only say this because the subject of this week’s “inspiration” post is someone who has had about as much negative (if not more) influence on the general public as positive. I am referring to a reasonably well-known action star named Steven Seagal.

It may be considered an unpopular opinion by some, but Seagal played an integral role in my interest of the martial arts. After all, he’s a master of Aikido, studied/taught in Japan and starred in a number of action movies that came out during those impressionable years when I was young enough to be impressed but old enough to think, “Hmm, this martial arts stuff is pretty cool!” He moved to Japan and studied Aikido there, and claims to have also been the “first non-Asian to open a dojo in Japan.” Whether this is true or not is anyone’s guess, but he’s had a colourful life prior to returning to the United States where he began acting in movies.

He has starred in almost five dozen movies, although a good number of those beyond the mid-90’s went straight to video. I first saw him when I was ten years old in a movie called Above The Law. In it, he plays a police officer and martial artists who uncovers a government conspiracy and helps put an end to it. Sounds pretty heroic, right? In fact, the majority of his movies have involved the protagonist being some sort of military/police/operative who ultimately saves the day. But that’s the whole point, right? We usually WANT to see the hero win. As a kid, I was awe-struck by Seagal’s ability to use grappling and striking as a means of defeating even the most difficult of enemies. And all of his films up until the late 90’s were pretty bad-ass. I can still watch some of them with deep enjoyment, although much more criticism on his martial arts technique.

Then it gets a bit convoluted. Seagal identifies as a Buddhist and martial artist. This holds some special meaning to me, being a Buddhist and martial artist myself. But it stands to reason that someone who practices a religion devoted to the elimination of suffering in the world should be doing just that, shouldn’t they? Seagal has been the subject of a lot of controversy recent decades, including allegations of sexual assault, violence against the people he works with and has ongoing feuds with the majority of his Hollywood counterparts, notably Jean-Claude Van Damme, as a prime example. Not a very Zen-like approach to life, especially a blessed one such as his.

In recent decades, Seagal has become something of a walking joke when one considers his strange political views, ongoing opinions about how other martial artists aren’t “true martial artists” and his apparent lack of self-care where his body is concerned. The man has ballooned up to the point that he almost looks like a cartoon character! My wife and I recently watched him on Netflix in a film called Maximum Conviction, where he starred alongside Steve Austin. Once again, he was portrayed as some sort of specialist who simply couldn’t be defeated. The movie basically starts out by having him beat up a prison inmate who happens to be over twice his mass!

I’m not saying that a genuine martial artist would be unable to defeat a larger opponent, but given the fact that he was 60 years of age in that movie, couple with how he’s let himself go physically, one needs to face reality at some point. It’s no surprise this was yet another straight-to-DVD movie. Even WITH Diabetes, I consider it a point of health, personal care and importance to try and maintain my physical fitness to the best of my ability; a task I feel that I’m still on top of, despite my gut slowly trying to overtake my efforts. But I digress…

My point is, Seagal helps to provide guidance in a very specific way: he’s shown me how NOT to be. His behaviours definitely don’t fall in line with someone who is a true student of the Buddhist or Martial Way. His concepts and abilities with the martial arts have been questioned for decades, both for their authenticity and truth behind his claims. None of this is how a true martial artists or Buddhist would be intended to behave. When I need to know how NOT to comport myself, I need only think of Steven Seagal. ☯

“Stick” To Traditional Weapons…

There is an unlimited number of martial arts styles from dozens of countries and backgrounds, all across the world. Some are surprisingly similar, despite having never intersected or crossed paths. I guess there’s only so many ways to throw a punch or kick. And throughout the centuries, some weapons decided to come along for the ride.

Having personally spent more than three quarters of my life studying an Okinawan style of karate, I’ve been exposed to a number of “traditional” Okinawan weapons including nunchaku, sai, kama and tonfa. I’ll just let you Google any of those terms that you may not recognize. And given that I’ve studied Kendo in reasonable depth means that I’ve developed some skill with the sword. But none holds a deeper place in my heart than one of the most basic weapons one could think of: the staff.

Let’s get real for a moment and agree that it doesn’t get any more basic than this. A stick is essentially the simplest and most basic weapon a person can grasp, and I’m sure that if we could have been there to see it, we’d also understand that humans have swung sticks around as weapons since the dawn of humanity. Given the styles I’ve studied and the culture from which it came, my version of the stick is referred to as a bo.

A typical bo staff usually measures about 6 feet in length, but can vary and reach almost 9 feet. The length of the weapon usually depends on one’s height and reach. A smaller, shorter version of the bo is a referred to as a jo, and is usually about 4 feet in length. This weapon is normally intended for children and martial artists of shorter stature. The bo will usually be made of a flexible wood, allowing for fluidity of movement and is tapered (thinner at the ends and thicker at the centre), which allows for proper balance during its use.

There are more variations of bo than I could possibly list, but they can be made of various different types of wood and shapes, including a rounded or hexagonal body, or even a square body. The shape makes no difference in the use of the staff and is mainly a preference. The staff has been included in some traditional martial arts styles such as Kobudo, which is an Okinawan style of weapons-based martial arts, or Bojutsu, which is effectively the Japanese martial art of training with the staff.

In simple terms, the staff is one of my favourite martial arts weapons because you can access one almost any place you happen to find yourself in a compromised situation. Mop or broom sticks, maybe garden tools… any wooden length of even a few feet can provide the benefits of bo training. Even if you don’t have access to Kobudo or Bojutsu in your area, many styles of karate will also incorporate the staff and can be an excellent addition to your combat repertoire. ☯

Roots In The Foundation

Way back at the end of the greatest decade ever… the 80’s, in case you’re wondering… I met an individual who would change and improve my life. In fact, I would go well beyond saying that he’s saved it, on more than one occasion. I am speaking, of course, of the subject of this week’s inspirational individual: My Sensei, Jean-Guy Levesque.

Sensei began his martial arts journey right around the same time I was born (ironic, isn’t it?). He worked in my home town of Dalhousie, New Brunswick and began studying the art of Judo at a young age. Although he achieved the rank of black belt, he never quite felt as though Judo was the right art for him. This would be where he did his research and discovered an Okinawan style of karate he wanted to pursue. The only problem was that it wasn’t taught in the Maritimes back then.

He found a teacher in Boston, of all places. Sensei packed up his red mustang and left his wife and newborn child behind in order to travel to the U.S. and pursue his martial arts ambitions. He travelled to Boston and found himself under the tutelage of Sensei Robert Blaisdell. At the time, Sensei Blaisdell was taken aback by the Canuck who randomly landed at his doorstep, seeking karate lessons. In fact, Sensei Blaisdell tried to convince my Sensei to seek out a teacher back in Canada as it made no sense for him to travel to Boston several times a year to maintain the skills he would learn.

Sensei wouldn’t be deterred and continued to travel to Boston regularly, eventually reaching the rank of brown belt. At that point, people in my home town of Dalhousie started asking Sensei to teach, which he did, opening his first school of karate in the attic space of an old Catholic School convent. He named the school the New England Academy of Karate & Judo, a name that ne can still see adorning some of my gear to this day.

Sensei and I in 2007

Sensei grew in skills and rank, and starting climbing the black belt ladder. He’s taught hundreds of students in the North Shore of New Brunswick. He fathered two children, a daughter and a son; both of whom have studied karate under his guidance. Sensei became THE leading source of self-defence and discipline back home, and was known as the karate no one stuck with, mostly due to the severe level of discipline and commitment required to keep up with the curriculum.

I walked into his dojo for the first time in early 1989, months before I would celebrate my 11th birthday. I had been diagnosed with Type-1 Diabetes six years prior. I was dangerously underweight, I suffered from severe insulin resistance and had already been through a number of comatose events in the previous years. My parents didn’t want me joining karate and were unaware that I was attending class, having left the house on the premise that I was simply going for a bike ride.

Due to my poor health, Sensei could have easily turned me away, claiming that I wouldn’t be able to keep up or train with the class. But instead, he chose to take me in, guide me, train me and help me develop. Over the next year, my health and blood sugars improved, my appetite and my mass increased and I began to hold my head up as opposed to being the quiet, withdrawn ghost that most only noticed when they needed someone to pick on.

Throughout the decades, Sensei has been a mentor, teacher, guide and father figure. He’s given me advice on almost every aspect of life and has helped in all areas of my growth. he’s taught his students with only the bare minimum of tuition fee, the strict minimum required to keep the doors open and the lights on. He has never charged any of his students for belt tests, additional training or even the physical belts themselves. His tutelage has always been about the art and never about the profit, the way any traditional teacher SHOULD be.

A few years ago, after more than forty years of teaching, he closed the doors to his dojo due to rising rental costs imposed by the local school board for the facilities he used. He now trains in private in a small dojo built into his home. He still trains with a couple of the students he once had, but it’s mostly on a one-on-one basis.

Sensei continues to be an inspiration to me because he sought out to pursue his dreams of learning karate and did so, regardless of the obstacles he faced. He managed to build a career and raise a family while doing it. We should all be so dedicated and committed to something. Even if we now live more than two thirds of the country apart, we communicate often and he continues to train me. I’m still learning from him. I don’t anticipate that will ever change. An email here, a photo or video clip there; he continues to add to my puzzle of a million pieces… One piece at a time. There are many who would say that I improved my life through my own efforts. Although they would right, I likely wouldn’t have made it with a lesser instructor with less dedication. Domo Arigatoo gozaimashita, Sensei!