Peace Or Power Through?

Life certainly has its share of difficulties and nothing is intended to be easy. As I’ve often said before, life doesn’t care about your plan. Given the various schools of thought that I study, I frequently find myself in conflict. What do you do when your faith conflicts with what you’re built to do?

I have often found that my faith tells me that I should pursue the most peaceful way possible, to follow the path of least resistance. I’m inclined to eliminate suffering as much as possible, if you will. And to be honest, this is the normal human condition, if you think about it.

As humans, we are biologically designed to take the easiest path to any result. Like the flowing of water, we tend to follow until we reach our lowest point. This isn’t always ideal, and can sometimes cause more issues than it solves.

Sensei has always told me that I shouldn’t force things so much, that I should go with the flow and allow life to guide me on the path I’m meant to take. Although the prospect of simply sitting back and allowing life to guide me along the lazy river, this isn’t the easiest thing to do when you have a home and a family to support and need to follow the expected requirements of modern life.

Meditation can often provide some clarity when trying to decide one’s path

The other side of the coin is that I was unfortunately raised as a fighter. I don’t give up and I never surrender, even when it causes me pain. If my life, my way of life, my family or my country are threatened, I won’t stop fighting until I win. For obvious reasons, this is also not always the best path.

It’s kind of ironic, because the same man who raised me to never stop fighting is also the same man telling me not to force things so much! That’s how things tend to get convoluted, when messages get confused and you don’t know which direction to take.

Ultimately, I don’t have an answer. If I did, I can promise that I wouldn’t be writing this post! No matter what path you choose to follow, life takes a lot of work. There’s no getting out of it. And when you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, it makes the journey take twice as long. ☯

Just Call Me "Teacher"

Over the decades, I’ve had the honour and pleasure of studying and training with a number of different martial arts and fighting styles. During these studies, I’ve taken note of some of the similarities and the difference between those styles. One of the important aspects is how to address the instructor of one’s respective martial arts style…

Depending on the background and what origin your martial art may have, the title given to the instructor may differ. Some styles may actually have no title for the lead instructor and may resort to something simple, such as “sir”. In this post, I will endeavour to cover the most common terms for martial arts instructors.

  • Sensei: Obviously, I’m going to start with mine! The term Sensei means “one who comes before” but literally translates as “teacher”. The term is used in most Japanese martial arts (such as karate, d-uh, Judo, JiuJutsu, Kendo, etc) and in SOME Chinese styles. The term Sensei can be used to address anyone qualified who teaches you a particular subject, and isn’t limited to the martial arts. For someone ranked at 5th Dan or higher, the instructor can be addressed by the title of “Master”. This is generally an honorific title and many instructors will choose to continue to be called “Sensei” regardless of what degree of black belt they hold;
  • Sifu: This is the term for an instructor in the Chinese styles of martial arts, most prominently Kung Fu. It can mean both “master” and “teacher” and in some circles can also be used to mean “spiritual father”. The problem with this term is that it can have different pronunciations depending on the art you’re studying;
  • TKD: TaeKwonDo is one of those complicated creatures, because they have so many different organizations, rules and denominations of the style, that they differ a great deal from one another. Depending on what TKD organization your school may fall under, terms such as “Boosabum”, “Sabum” and “Sahyun”. That being said, TKD is one of those schools where all the instructors I’ve ever met have been referred to as “Sir” (In Canada, at least);
  • Coach: This is a term used in most schools of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools, albeit some of them will use the term “Professor”, which is just an honorific. The term translates directly from the Brazilian term for “teacher”.

There are plenty more terms out there, but I’ve covered the most common ones: karate, kung fu, Tae Kwon Do and Jiu-Jitsu. Believe me when I say that there are many more styles and terms out there that may be different. The important thing, especially if you’ve just started a new style, is to ask. Don’t be afraid to ask how you should be addressing the instructor.

I still remember my first encounter with Sensei. We were doing kicking and punching drills, and I was confused on the exact step for one of the techniques we were studying. I tried getting Sensei’s attention for several minutes, until I finally yelled out, “Sir, I need your help…”

Sensei was good enough to wait and let me ask my question, then took the time to answer it. Then he asked “Got it?” I said yes and stepped back into line, at which point Sensei said, “Oh, and by the way… My name is Sensei and if you ever call me something different, you’ll owe me a hundred push-ups…” Then he walked away from me, leaving my jaw dropped wondering if he was kidding. He wasn’t. But that’s another story…

The point is, if someone has successfully opened a martial arts school and is successfully teaching, he or she has earned the respect to be addressed by the title their art entitles them to. So, be certain to be respectful and ask if you’re not sure and use the title once you are. After all, respect and discipline are practically synonymous with the martial arts.

FYI, it’s been 31 years and I’ve never had to pay out those hundred push-ups. Jus’ sayin’… ☯

In Teaching Others, We Teach Ourselves

I can’t recall where I read the proverb I used in my title, but it’s pretty accurate. If there’s an important lesson I’ve learned in almost four decades, it’s that we gain almost as much from teaching and passing on our knowledge as we do from obtaining it.

I’ve previously mentioned the martial arts ladder, and the importance of helping other students climb beyond you, once you’ve reached a certain level. Some “old school” martial arts teachers will often claim that it’s important to hold something back; keep that secret technique to yourself so that you always have a finishing move to fall back on. I was raised on a system of martial arts where the students have the potential to learn EVERYTHING the style has to offer.

Shintaro-san showing me some specifics of a kata
Okinawa – 2001

Humans are competitive by nature. There’s no getting around it. Something about “survival of the fittest”, and one of the aspects of that competitive nature is showing off your skills. Most people are inclined to show others what they’ve learned and showcase their skills. That’s why most sports are competitively displayed for spectators. Although some instincts are hard to fight, one can easily turn that competitive nature into an instinct to teach.

One of the best times of my martial arts career was when I had a school of my own, back in New Brunswick. It was a wonderful feeling, opening the class with all the students bowing to me and following my instruction. There was a deep feeling of satisfaction in knowing that these people were learning and progressing based on what I was teaching them. Seeing their progress taught me a great deal about how I was learning.

Leading a junior class in Sanchin, sometime in the early 1990’s

I was reminded of all this when I saw a Tai Chi group practicing in the open hallway of a local shopping mall this morning. The group was a bit on the smaller side, maybe more than a dozen. I don’t like using the term “elderly” but the group was a touch on the older side, and you could see that the person leading the group was deeply invested in coaching a guiding the people that were there.

I had to close my school in early 2009 as I had to move across country for my career. Since my job usually moves me around every few years, I’ve never had the stability to open another school. It wouldn’t be fair to any prospective students to start training with me, only to have me leave after a few years.

But it got me thinking about decades down the road, and wondering if perhaps eventually I’ll be teaching my own group once I retire and finally settle to a permanent home.

Learning any new skill is exciting and loads of fun. But should you ever have the opportunity to teach what you know to others, I highly recommend it. Like most thing in life, teaching has its difficulties but can offer great rewards and satisfaction. ☯

Accept The Knowledge, Or Get Out!

I don’t know how to do yoga. I know, shocking right? Can’t do it. I know it involves specific poses, stretches and stock ownership in LuluLemon apparel, but if you asked me to stand in front of a group of folks and try and teach them yoga, three things would happen: my pants would likely split from the attempt, all my joints would create a sound likely to frighten all those who hear it and last but not least… You wouldn’t learn yoga! Plus, picturing me doing downward dog is likely causing all the angels in heaven to simultaneously throw up…

Learning a new skill or art can be fun and exciting, but there are certain steps to acquiring that knowledge. If I walked into a yoga class today, I wouldn’t expect exclusive lessons and mentorship from the instructor. After all, he or she would have a classroom full of people to take care of. One would be inclined to assume that one would have to simply follow along and gleam what learning they can as they go along until they acquire the basics they need to start advancing. Some classes are like this. Another option is that you would perhaps need to accept coaching from someone not too far above your skill level. This is more likely.

And the case would be the same for the martial arts. If you walked into a karate class on your first night of training, you could hardly expect that the lead instructor would be the one showing you the basics. Maybe they would; it depends on the school you train in. But unless the school you’re starting with is overrun with black belts (in which case, you should run from that school as fast as possible and find a different one) the safe bet is that you’ll likely be learning from a junior belt, perhaps even a white belt. And not everyone is okay with that.

I’m reminded of a class from just a little over twenty-five years ago… I was stretching and shadow boxing, preparing for the gruelling two hours that awaited me. I was early, as usual, and I noticed a new guy in class. He was wearing a loose t-shirt and sweatpants, looking awkward against the backdrop of students in crisp, white karate uniforms.

Sensei walked up to me and introduced me to the new student (I honestly don’t remember his name. It’s been over twenty-five years, give me a break!) He asked me to show the new student our ten basic exercises and aiding movements as well as the opening of our first form. I gladly agreed and introduced myself as Sensei walked away.

I noticed that the new guy seemed a bit distracted as I spoke to him and I asked him what was wrong. The exchange went a little something like this:

ME: Is everything okay? You seem distracted…

New Guy: No, no, it’s fine. It’s just that… Shouldn’t I be learning this stuff from him? (points to Sensei)

ME: Well, Sensei usually takes the first fifteen minutes before class to stretch and has one of us teach basics to new students. Is that a problem?

New Guy: Honestly? No offence, but I didn’t join karate to learn from a white belt! I want to learn from a black belt… (walks away and starts stretching in imitation of what Sensei was doing)

Now in this guy’s defence, I WAS wearing a white belt! At the time, I had a white belt with a solid green bar, meaning I was ready to test for green belt. I was far from new and was more than capable of teaching what was asked of me. But from this guy’s perspective, I was a white belt and unfit to be showing him the ropes. Ah, that lovely perspective…

Once class was in full swing and we started doing the actual form I was supposed to show the new guy, his confused look and the fact he was looking around in a vain attempt to mimic the other students did NOT go unnoticed. Sensei stepped up behind him and asked what the problem was, since I had shown him these steps. The new student replied that I had shown him nothing.

Once we closed and students started filing out, Sensei approached me and asked what I had shown to the new student. “Nothing,” I replied. “He decided he didn’t want to learn from a white belt. Sensei shrugged and instructed that no one provide guidance to the new student until he asked for it.The guy attended another two or three classes then dropped out. Seems that karate isn’t all that easy to learn when you aren’t willing to listen.

Was it a harsh elimination of an unwanted student? Perhaps. But the lesson here is that if you truly wish to learn a new art or skill, you’ll take the knowledge from wherever you can. If that student had followed my guidance on the first night, he likely would have been able to follow along and progress. Instead, he allowed his preconceived notions about the belt around my waist to negate any possibility of his ever training in the martial arts. A great loss. For him, not for us.

Be willing to accept knowledge from whomever is willing to share it. Sometimes you may lose nothing. Sometimes you may lose a great deal. But unless you’re willing to accept it, you’ll never know. It’s like Sensei used to say, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so you should listen TWICE as much as you talk!”

Too Many Ingredients Will Spoil The Stew…

I grew up in Northern New Brunswick and my entire family on my Mother’s side were Acadian. This meant that I was bought up around a certain number of… shall we say eccentricities surrounding some of their customs and habits. One of my most hated customs was Sunday dinner at my Grandmother’s house. That probably sounds way harsher than I mean it to. The reason I disliked it so much was because of the Acadian “cuisine” my Grandmother would serve.

In her mind, feeding a room full of family members involved piling meat, potatoes and maybe two or three different vegetables into a large pot with water and boiling the entire thing until everything was soft. Usually served with rolls or plain white bread, it wasn’t what any person would consider a savoury or satisfying meal. But it was food, and having raised a family through the Second World War, she was raised on the concept of feeding as many people as possible, as cheaply as possible. So she can hardly be blamed.

I remember that on one occasion, I decided I wanted to try “spicing” things up a bit and politely suggested that she add something other than beef, potatoes and turnips. That’s when my Grandmother, without stopping what she was doing or even looking up at me said, “Too many ingredients will spoil the stew!”

At the time, I was mostly pissed off at the prospect of another bland meal (I know, I know… unappreciative little jerk), but the words somehow stayed with me and have applied to a number of aspects of my life. Not least of which is the martial arts.

Studying the martial arts is a life-long endeavour. Hey, I’ve been studying the same style for over 31 years and there’s still a lot I have to learn. Something that’s been asked of me on a few occasions is whether or not it’s possible to study multiple styles at once. I can tell you from experience, it is not.

Just to be clear, when one chooses to begin studying, it’s important to find a style that suits your needs and personality. Martial arts is subjective to the practitioner. A kick boxer may swear by their art, while a karate practitioner believes their style is tops! Ask them to exchange places and they would be lost.

But once you’ve chosen your style, it’s important to stick with it in order to stay consistent. For example, although I study Okinawan Karate, I occasionally dabble with other styles and techniques. As Frank Dux once said, “never limit yourself to one style.”

Although I can agree with that sentiment, there are certain signs that may point to the fact that you’re watering yourself down in your training. If your style mainly involves strikes, it can be beneficial to spend a bit of time studying some grappling. Although it can be good to add to your repertoire, if you find that what you dabble in is starting to interfere with your main style, it may be time to back it off a notch.

I, for one, have studied 8 different styles over the past 30 years and have obtained black belts in two. Although not simultaneously. And for each of those styles, once attempted, I had to make peace with the fact that they didn’t suit me. I could never study any two of those styles at the same time as many of them would have conflicted with each other.

Too many ingredients will spoil the stew. Without even meaning to, my Grandmother taught me an important lesson about the martial arts that I’ve carried with me for decades, once again proving that we can find knowledge in the most unlikely of places. ☯

Don’t Make Me Repeat Myself

One of the things that my Sensei used to tell me back in the day, when I was still living on his side of the country is that when you reach a certain level of experience in the martial arts, “once a Sensei, always a Sensei.” I never paid that much heed except that when I take the time to look back over the past decade since closing my dojo, I recognize a number of times where I’ve fallen into the instructor’s role without trying.

Even in my current role of training with my local school of Kempo, I often find myself providing a certain level of coaching and instruction to some of the younger and lower-ranked students. It’s almost a pull or an instinct. But like anyone else who passes on information they may have, I’m not always as clear as I should be.

I’ve written a number of times about how it’s important to stop doing the same thing over and over and to change it up, challenge yourself and go outside your comfort zone in order to progress. The problem is, some folks have taken that message as a meaning that performing repetitive actions such as forms and drills have no value and should be avoided. Not only is this false, but there is an important discernment to be made between repeating specific actions in order to build one’s muscle memory or learn something, and always staying at the same level by repeating the exact same actions. Allow me to explain…

Let’s say that you want to learn a new type of kick… Chances are that the person teaching you will start by having you observe him or her do this kick before having you join in and practice it a number of times before letting you practice the kick on your own. Even once you’re on your own, you’ll need to continue repeating the technique until it becomes comfortable, familiar and you can claim at least some level of proficiency with it. This is a called “muscle memory” and not only is it a good thing, it’s a vital part of the martial arts. And the only way to achieve it, is through repetition.

Muscle memory is an integral part of the martial arts because, let’s be honest, an attack generally won’t come with a warning. So setting yourself up, stretching and being ready to respond never happens. Ever. Sure, we stretch and get ready before a class, but that’s a controlled environment intended for your learning. Your body needs to be able to respond to a potential attack on it’s own without you needing time to put thought into what you’re going to do. If you take time to think about it, chances are the attack has already happened. So repetition for muscle memory is good.

Now, let’s once again assume that you intend on doing… let’s say a light dumbbell workout. You line up a pair of 25-pound dumbbells, because they’re the ones you’ve always used. You take a few moments to stretch, followed by 25 jumping jacks to get your heart rate going. Then you fall into 3 sets of 10 reps of bicep curls, butterfly curls, shoulder presses and weighted squats. You do this exact same workout, every Saturday morning at 9 am. You never increase the weights, never change up the exercises and always repeat the exact same workout. Any exercise is better than no exercise of course, and I’m only using this as an example but this is the bad kind of repetition.

Do you see the difference? The problem is that if you repeat this exact same workout EVERY time you do it, there will be no growth, no progression and no advancement in your fitness. Muscle memory holds no value for fitness workouts, so you need to be able to change it up. Maybe the following week sees you increase your weight. Perhaps you’ll lighten the weights and do sets of a cardio-style dumbbell circuit. Maybe you’ll do that same workout but add 30 minutes of jogging or cycling in the mix. Whatever. As long as you’re building on the base you’ve already established.

In case my explanation was a little too long in the tooth (as it often is), the point of today’s post can be summarized as follows… Long-term repetition for the purposes of learning and/or improving a technique and develop muscle memory: GOOD. Remaining stagnant by constantly repeating the exact same workout without ever challenging yourself or allowing growth: BAD.

Martial arts is actually a very slow-moving creature and it takes years to properly learn techniques. I’ve been doing karate for 31 years and I’m still learning, so that should give you an idea. But while you’re busy learning all the good stuff, keep pushing your body to grow and progress, increase your weights (safely) and keep your fitness fresh and fun by trying new workouts! You’re more likely to stick with it, that way.☯

Make Sure Your house Doesn’t Crumble

I think we can unanimously agree that no matter what structure you try to build, it’ll never stand on its own without a solid foundation. One of the most famous examples of this, is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Constructed in the 12th century, the tower was constructed using a too-thin foundation set upon weak sub-soil. Once builders began adding the second floor, the foundation began to sink, leading to the well-known angle of today.

This is why a proper foundation is so important. And this applies to anything one does in life, not least of which is the martial arts. Every style has its own type of foundation. And for karate, that foundation is form.

In karate, forms are called kata, which literally translates from Japanese as “form”. Katas are a combination of specific movements and techniques that are combined in order to develop them. Although katas are meant to be used as a means of training alone, they can be performed in unison in a class setting as well. Katas mostly refer to Japanese and Okinawan martial arts, such as karate, judo and aikido.

Katas are often poorly received by students because they are so structured and fixed. Students obviously prefer the more exciting and “fun” aspects of karate, such as sparring and using punching bags. But katas are what allow a student to develop the skills required to properly do all the fun stuff like sparring and using punching bags.

When doing katas, one should perform a minimum of three repetitions of each form. Some systems only have the one form or kata, and add sub-parts to the one. Other styles, such as mine, have almost a dozen different forms and katas and are all necessary to master the techniques and fighting methods used in combat. The three repetitions are as follows:

  1. First speed: You’re doing the kata at the slowest possible speed. The point to this one is to perform the kata with as much precision as possible. This slower speed allows the student to focus on their stance and proper technique, lending emphasis to form over power. It also allows the student to balance their breathing in time with the striking aspects of whatever kata they may be performing;
  2. Second speed: This is only slightly faster than the previous one, and the student should begin adding a certain element of power and strength behind all strikes and blocks. Emphasis should still remain on proper breathing, control and stance;
  3. Third speed: This repetition is basically an unhindered version of your kata. You basically let yourself off the rails and do the kata as fast and as strong as possible while maintaining proper form and stance. This speed is as close as one can come to shadow boxing while still maintaining the pre-arrange format of a kata.

Every workout should include form or kata, without exception. After all, if you don’t maintain your foundation, the entire structure of your training may start leaning like a failed bell tower! The best martial arts workouts often begin and end with form. Either way, depending on what style you train in, remember to maintain your foundation and keep it strong. ☯