Friction in the Dojo: How It Can Move You Forward

Friction. . .

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It can be the thing that helps drive you forward. . .

It can be the thing that slows you down. . .

As yellow belts, my friend Tracy and I had a silent competition against each other.

Our Sensei told us that the only person we should compete against was ourselves.

“Os! Sensei!”

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In lip service, like so many still do, we professed to one another and our instructors that this was always our goal, to simply be better than we were the day before.

A selfish attempt to be more idyllic than the other.

When we stood next to each other in line, our eyes would always glance to the other.

Watching, sensing, checking. . .

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“Is her horse stance lower than mine?”

“Did she do more push-ups than I?”

“Did the Sensei compliment her and not me?”

As these thoughts and insecurities arose in me, I later learned that she thought the same.

It was the unspoken friction that propelled us forward.

For everything she did well, I was committed to doing it. . .

better,

faster,

stronger,

than her.

And with that, Tracy would double her efforts in return.

In the presence of one another, our efforts were exponentiated. Our skill improved through the silent desire to be the best in the dojo, better than the other.

But. . .

One day, Tracy stopped attending classes. So, I was left  alone to to find another “Frienemy” to silently compete with.

As the years passed, there would be others. . .

Watching, sensing, checking. . .

Better, stronger, faster. . .

Wash, rinse, repeat. . .

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But, they would all eventually leave as well.

By the time I achieved my Shodan, there was no one left to compete with.

The Senpai above me were so far ahead, there was no competition there.

And, my students were not close enough yet to truly challenge me (although, I look forward to that day).

Without this traction, I could feel myself slowing down.

For the first time in my life, I had no one to compete with but myself.

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Where I once targeted my critical eye on those around me, I was now forced to point it at the one person I could neither defeat nor be defeated by: myself.

It was in that moment I understood what my Sensei was getting at when he said, “You should only compete with yourself.”

There is, of course, value in silently competing with those around you, as a type momentary motivation to challenge your physicality and fitness.

But, in the long run, you should define your success on your own terms. Each individual in the dojo has their own unique objectives. Sometimes people pursue martial arts for fitness, others for camaraderie, or just because they find it fascinating.

Would you want to compete against someone who is purely interested in the history of karate when your interest is biomechanics?

Of course not.

In this sense, it’s not so much about competing, but defining your unique objectives. Give yourself the recognition that you deserve. Observe the distance you’ve gone to achieve your goals. Have enough self-awareness to ask “Can I do better?” and to answer “I will do better”.

Now, when I step in line and look in the mirror, I sometimes see the gawky, awkward, teenage, yellow belt I once was and I wonder. . .

“Is her stance lower than mine?”

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The Road Less Travelled Is Not Always A Road

“There are many paths to the top of the mountain. . .”

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One night, I had a dream that I slid down a mountain and I was about to fall into the ocean. Before I hit the water, I caught onto something and started to climb back up. At this point, there were other people around me—most of which were people I loved and respected—and they were climbing faster than me and with bigger loads on their back; some were even carrying other people as they climbed upwards.  I was constantly losing my footing and slipping; I was afraid to fall, anxious to get to the top and frustrated that everyone else was doing better than me.

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Then, I noticed a river flowing down the mountain beside me and a long time friend said to me, “Let’s swim up, it’s easier that way.” He jumped into the river and swam up, reaching the top before anyone else.

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I was afraid to follow because the current flowed downwards, but because I trusted him so much, I jumped in anyway and began to swim. I wasn’t sure in what style to swim in, because my friend reached the top with front stroke, I tried his way, but I went further down. So I started swimming doggie paddle; still didn’t work. Then, I went with breast stroke and found that I reached the top before everyone else.

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Although unorthodox, I realized that by jumping into the river, I didn’t have to be afraid of falling anymore, because one cannot fall while in water. And even though I had to fight the current in the river, it was easier to flow upwards than if I had followed the methods of the people around me and I need not compete with them, because it is only through my own technique that I may reach the top of the mountain.

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“. . .But there is only one moon to be seen for those who achieve its summit.”- Chinese Proverb

9 Stupid Reasons to Be In the Dojo. . .And, The 1 Good Reason YOU SHOULD!

Have you ever met someone in your dojo who just doesn’t get it!?

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The student (and sometimes teacher) who will do martial arts for every reason under the sun, except for the reason they should!

The reason that will give them the best results. . .

The reason that will give them the greatest satisfaction. . .

So here are some of the ignorant, the creepy and at times downright stupid “reasons” to train I’ve seen over the years from students and teacher alike, and the simple answer I have for all of them.

1) When your Mom drops you off and you don’t want to be there. . .

JUST TRAIN!

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2) When you’re trying to escape your personal problems. . .

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3) When you want a way to flirt with the girls in the dojo behind your wife’s back. . .

That’s creepy! Stop it! JUST TRAIN!

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4) When you want to believe training will make you a Jedi. . .

Do or Do not. . . JUST TRAIN!

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5) When you  fake an injury just to get attention. . .

JUST TRAIN!

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6) When you have a crush on the Sensei. . .

Ugh. . .Grow up! JUST TRAIN!

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7) When you want to be the next Karate Kid. . .

Wax on. Wax off. JUST TRAIN!

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8) When you’re looking for a father figure. . .

Get therapy! JUST TRAIN!

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Well, maybe not therapy from him. . . 

9) When you want your next belt. . .

JUST TRAIN!

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10) When you want to be a respected martial artist. . .

That seems legitimate. . .JUST TRAIN!

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“JUST TRAIN!” It’s Chuck Norris APPROVED!

When you enter the dojo, there’s only one reason and one reason only to be in that room.

So, Shut up!

JUST TRAIN!

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You Invested In The Wrong One. . .

You know the one. . .

A Student

A student who showed so much promise. . .

With the ability to pick up movements with ease and grace,

An ability to strike and kick as if it was second nature, leaving you with the feeling you have found a prodigy.

You know the one. . .

A Teacher

A teacher who showed so much promise. . .

With skill and knowledge so far beyond your own.

A paradoxical ability to challenge and encourage you, leaving you with the feeling you’d be lost without them.

But then. . .

Something happens. . .

The masquerade ends. . .

And, something dark deep down seeps out from beyond their mask.

They are not what we hoped them to be. They never were.

You know the one. . .

A Student

A student who speaks wrongly behind your back

With the natural ability to lie and deceive;

A prodigy with the cloak and dagger.

You know the one. . .

A Teacher

A teacher who lacks moral stamina.

The ability to choose vice over virtue.

They submit to nothing, except their own temptations.

But perhaps the mask they once wore was not one of their choosing

It is a mask we projected.

We were so desperate to grasp at the hybrid of elegance and ugliness that we put what we desired most in the forefront only to watch it dissolve away, leaving you with this empty feeling. . .

You invested in the wrong one.

Post Script:

No matter the reason—whether it was simply a talented student who went off to university, a teacher who started teaching “chi- balls,” or something far more insidious—being disappointed by someone in whom you’ve made the careful decision to invest your time, energy and, dare I say, love is never easy. But, as the Buddha says, “all things are impermanent” and as that emptiness passes, you’ll find that in its place friendships with more dedicated students and respectable teachers will blossom far greater than the void that was left. Those are the people worth investing in.  

Karate and The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is when you make a decision based on the desire NOT to see your past investment go to waste, rather than on the best outcome.

Nowhere else do I see this phenomenon as much as in karate.

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I have listened to many karate students and teachers explain to me that they are disenchanted with their current karate practice:

“The application practices are unrealistic.”

“The body movements are mechanical.”

“The teaching style is too militarized.”

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Yet when I ask, “Why don’t you quit or switch styles?”, there is always an excuse. Sometimes, they quote loyalty to their instructor or peers.

OR

It’s just the way they’ve always done it.

Denial-san at it’s best!

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The real reasoning is they cannot bear the thought that they’ve invested their entire life for a method that is now or always has been worthless.

It’s a security blanket that is worn, tattered and useless!

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I’ve also seen long-time students make no meaningful commitment to training, but show up for the last 15 minutes of class once a month, do a kata and leave, while claiming they are still passionate about martial arts. It is obvious their interest has faded and they’d be happier somewhere else.

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Why do they continue to come to a class when they aren’t getting anything from the class mentally, physically or even socially?

They hold on by their fingernails because they fear that if they completely stop, that all those years of real commitment and work will have been a waste.

As Julia Galif explains, “whatever you have already spent is called the sunk cost. It’s gone no matter what you do going forward.”

The irony is that the desire to not see your past investment go to waste makes you waste even more time clinging to something that you no longer enjoy.

My advice is to not waste any more time pretending martial arts is something you actually want to do. Put yourself in a place you want to be, even if that means leaving the Dojo behind.

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For instructors who are disenchanted, find a methodology that truly fits the outcomes you want to achieve. It may mean biting the bullet and starting over again from the beginning, but once you realize you are on the wrong path, the only option is to correct the course you are on.

For the students who have lost interest, your time hasn’t necessarily been wasted. The benefits of pursuing the fighting arts are far and wide and the lessons you’ve learned will always be with you. Remember, it’s better to have loved and left than to have never loved at all.

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Guest Post: “The Instructor-Student Gap: Why Your Students Still Suck” by Josh Stewart

Any good instructor’s process is always under scrutiny. The instructor looks at the students and wonders, “Why aren’t they doing what I asked?” or “Is that really what I showed them?”

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Self-doubt is a valuable tool in martial arts both as a student and as an instructor. As a student, when the instructor makes a correction or provides feedback, there should always be the assumption that you are the one doing it wrong. If that’s the baseline assumption, then if it’s not true, you have reminded yourself of something you are doing correctly, and if true, then you have found an area to fix.

As an instructor, this can be somewhat more difficult. The reality is that there will always be a gap between what you teach and what somebody else learns. It could be physiological differences, miscommunication, or varying learning styles that cause this discrepancy to exist.

Physiological Differences:

Age and injury account for a number of physical limitations that may prevent students from doing exactly what the instructor does, but there are also a number of other biological factors that affect how an individual performs a particular technique.

Flexibility, or lack thereof, has a vast effect on how the body moves. Stances and kicks are obvious areas where flexibility provides a greater range and may limit a student from copying exactly how an instructor executes a movement. Grappling is another area where strategy or technique selection can be largely determined by flexibility. For example, Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet system is designed with the assumption of a certain range of motion, and someone without that capacity may struggle to emulate those exact sequences.

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However, I have also noticed that double-jointed students often have difficulty limiting their flexibility by contracting muscular groups effectively at the right times. Even a simple straight punch, executed by someone with a lot of flexibility, sometimes gives the appearance and feeling of being floppy when joints hyperextend without suitable muscular contraction to support the energy transfer.

Stature is another contributing factor. Bigger, more muscular people may rely on their size and strength advantage when working with a smaller partner, leading to neglect of correct footwork, positioning, or body mechanics because they can “get away with” doing the technique incorrectly—until they encounter a training partner their own size. Conversely, smaller students may have to supplement their techniques with extra kicks, knees, or groin slaps to help bring larger partners down to their own level. Otherwise, they may struggle to achieve the intended outcome because they simply can’t reach the targets designed in the training exercise.

Miscommunication:

As the word suggests, this occurs when one or both parties involved are not on the same page in regards to what is being asked. Any martial arts instructor who teaches kids knows that lack of listening or focus has a vast impact on this process, but it is certainly not limited to children.

Adults, especially advanced ones, tend to experience miscommunication because they believe that they already know the message being delivered. Again, the correct default for a student should be to assume they know nothing and are doing it all wrong, but naturally after several years of training, the ego may want us to assume otherwise.

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Of course, it takes two to tango. Instructors sometimes give vague or contradictory pieces of information about how a technique or strategy should be applied. Another source of miscommunication that can be blamed solely on the instructor is talking over the students’ heads. At times there may be too much technical jargon that learners will not be familiar with, in which case the verbal instruction may not transfer any useful information to the group. Instructors always need to remember who their audience is to ensure that the right level of detail is being provided at the right time in the learning process.

To limit miscommunication, creating an environment where it is safe to ask questions is vital. If a student asks for clarification and gets an abrupt, rude response, that will be the end of the process. Unfortunately an instructor’s ego is also involved in this process, often leading to the conclusion: “Well, I explained it clearly . . . What’s wrong with these students for not getting it right?” Just like the student, the instructor’s baseline assumption should be the opposite. If the students aren’t getting it, the onus should first be on the instructor to try again to deliver the lesson clearly and effectively.

Learning Styles:

Of course, there has been a lot of research into kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning. The established reality is that, while we may rely more heavily on one rather than the other, each is a spectrum, and depending on what we are learning, we use each to varying degrees. In martial arts, we virtually always rely on them all: we listen and watch as the instructor presents the material, then we practice it physically.

Learning style also affects how an instructor delivers lessons in terms of how much context to give. Some learners are “big picture” oriented—they won’t understand the piece of a puzzle unless they know what the entire scope of the puzzle is. However, others are happy just to take one piece and practice it, and worry about the next step in the process when they get there. While one learner might be confused by being asked to deliver a technique without knowing what came before and what will come after it, another will be bored by the teacher’s long, unnecessary rant about the history and functionality of a certain sequence that they haven’t had the chance to practice yet.

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Body language is a key to understanding a student’s learning style. An auditory learner stands closely to the instructor and leans in to hang on every word; a visual learner re-positions to get the best angle to see what’s happening; a kinesthetic learner mimics the instructor as the movement is being demonstrated. Global learners may walk back to their partner shaking their heads or linger longer than others, hoping for more explanation. Analytic learners may look restless when the big picture is explained and will be the first one back to their partners.

In any group of students, there will typically be a standard distribution of students who will learn faster than average with less practice, those who will achieve proportionally to the amount of effort they expend, and those who are ultimately destined for failure despite their best efforts. The instructor’s role dictates catering to those in the second category. If students are struggling to perform the technique as being explained and demonstrated, the instructor should first look at the potential of his or her own failure before moving to the conclusion (although sometimes correct) that the student is the one responsible for missing the mark.

Author Bio Josh Stewart

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5 Phrases That Need To Be Used MORE In The Dojo

5 words that need to be used more in the Dojo-4

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Dojo Gossip: Let’s Kick Some Scuttlebutt! (Part 1)

In Buddhism, they have a set of tenets called the Eightfold Path that serve as a guide for moral action and to relieve us from suffering. Amongst it’s precepts is “right speech,” which includes avoiding lying, hurtful speech and today’s topic, gossip!

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In the post Dojo Disillusionment, I touched on drama in the dojo. This topic received a strong reaction from the martial arts community.  It seems this gossip fuelled phenomenon is not unique to one person, club or style, but is universally experienced and fostered across MANY fighting systems around the globe.

The martial arts preach about the nature of respect, discipline and any other typical word or phrase that implies honour and we know very well that gossip and drama do nothing to help us in our individual progress. Then why is it that the martial arts seems to foster so much gossip? What is it about the martial arts that attract such drama?

By applying the insight of “Can Gossip Be Good?” (written by Knox College Psychology Professor Frank T. McAndrew) to the martial arts community, I hope to be able to provide plausible answers to these questions—in the end, helping us realign our compass along the path that can sometimes “become skewed in the mist of frivolous nonsense that seeps into our practice brought on by human inadequacies.”

Social Bonding

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It’s strange, isn’t it? In an art where we constantly practice how to demolish the human body, we can build such meaningful and long-lasting relationships.

Just as overcoming adversity, whether physical or otherwise, can act as a form of social bonding, so can gossip. Ron Dunbar from the University of Liverpool says, “gossip is a mechanism for bonding social groups together, analogous to the grooming that is found in primate groups.”

According to Frank T. McAndrew, this type of social bonding helped our ancestors address problems such as “remembering who was a reliable exchange partner and who was a cheater, knowing who would be a reproductively viable mate and figuring out how to successfully manage friendships, alliances and family relationships.” Surely, we can all think of ways this applies to the martial arts.

“Reliable Exchange Partner”

For some, the term “reliable exchange partner” might stand out in the previous paragraph. Although McAndrew uses the phrase to refer to those who our ancestors might have had monetary investment in, as martial artists, we might think of those whom we exchange blows with, our training partners. At seminars or even our own classes, we take into consideration whether or not we can trust the people we work with.

We wonder:

“Can I work with this person and not get physically injured?”

“Is that person here just to be physical with the opposite sex?”

“Are they good at what they do?

“Can they help me improve?”

Where possible, we rely on those who have had previous experiences to help us guide our decision to work with specific people. Gossip, then, serves as a means of determining who will help us thrive in the martial arts, while at the same time avoid situations that could be detrimental to our safety; in other words, it acts as a means of self preservation and protection.

“Cheaters”

In the martial arts, those who are dedicated have a lifelong investment in their teachers, style and dojo. Hence, knowing whom McAndrew refers to as “cheaters” through gossip, we can learn who is loyal and will help in the progression and preservation of our dojos, its culture and the people who encompass it. 

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Perhaps you know people who try and cheat the system to attain a new rank, giving those who have the power to promote them the impression that they are training hard and consistently, when in reality they are amongst the lowest in skill, effort and attendance. Others may praise a teacher to his face and secretly poison his name behind his back. Gossip serves as a means of exposing these “cheaters” as unworthy exchange partners for the greater good of the community.

“Deep Trust”

Our relationships in the martial arts are heavily dependent on trust. Based on trust, we allow other people to come within millimeters of breaking our limbs and spend years of our lives investing in instructors who we believe know what’s best.

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McAndrew goes on to say that “sharing gossip is a sign of deep trust because you are clearly signaling that you believe that this person will not use this sensitive information in a way that will have negative consequences for you; shared secrets have a way of bonding people together.”

As we see in the movies, the Master only shares his secret techniques with his most dedicated pupils; this is also true with gossip. When the instructor shares his experiences about instructors of other styles or dojos, he is not only doing so to help protect his pupil against “false prophets,” or those with low ethical standards, but also demonstrates to his pupil that he has faith in their discretion. It communicates to the student, just as learning the “secret technique” does, that this information is meant for them and them alone—in the end, building a stronger bond between pupil and instructor.

Human Beings First

Ultimately, we are human beings first and martial artists second. As human beings, we are social creatures; we crave acceptance and deep social bonds. Gossip, in it’s most innocent form, is simply a form of social bonding. It helps build trust amongst those in our dojos. We share the appropriate information to help others protect against potential physical or emotional threats that can occur in a seminar, tournament or class. This act also serves as a means of preserving those who share our values and isolate those who are untrustworthy or disloyal. In doing so, we create a community of like-minded individuals built on trust and friendship, where we can practice our art safely and free of fear.

Yet . . .

As we all know, there is a very dark side to gossip, used as a means of manipulation and deception. In the upcoming blog, Dojo Gossip Part 2, I’ll explore how the dark side of gossip is a reflection of ego and thrives in the martial artists’ competitive natures, which we so often ignore.

A Charmed Martial Arts Life

My mother always said I had a charmed life—not necessarily in the sense of extreme luck such as winning the lottery, but more in the sense that I’m presented with fortunate circumstances that allow me to make the best of any situation.

I feel especially charmed when it comes to people. I’ve always been fortunate to find people who seem to be willing to invest in me.

This has been extremely influential in my pursuit of the martial arts.

I know wholeheartedly that I would not be as successful in the martial arts if it weren’t for those who took the time to challenge, teach and encourage me. I value them especially because I know I am an imperfect human being. When I feel, I feel strongly, and on more than one occasion when my passion gets the best of me I’ve challenged them in return, often with great bluntness and sometimes without courtesy.

But, this is, of course, the nature of the student-teacher relationship. It is not simply an exchange of knowledge; it’s more than that.

It’s a mutual dialogue built on trust and friendship.

It’s camaraderie that helps us find our way through the twists and turns that the martial arts and life throw at us along our path.

And, very often, it is a test of wills.

With that said, I would like to take the time to recognize those who have helped me in my most recent martial arts journey: The Martial Arts Muse.

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In October, The Martial Arts Muse exceeded my goal of 10,000 views within the year. I strongly believe it would not have been as successful if it weren’t for those who encouraged me to be a little bit better than I was the day before.

Hanshi Patrick McCarthy 

My Australian-based instructor is the Director of the IRKRS and head Sensei of Koryu Uchinadi. Sensei McCarthy has probably forgotten more than we will ever learn. Many of the concepts and ideas I touch on in my blogs I learned through my experience training with him and those who are a part of the IRKRS. He is the central hub through which I could find a community of like-minded individuals in which to share my point of view.

Renshi Mike Coombes

Renshi Mike Coombes is the head instructor of Hatsuun Jindo Martial Arts and a Sandan in Koryu Uchinadi. Although he might be unaware of it, many of our conversations have served as inspiration for my writing. Through our conversations, I’ve learned that the issues that I once thought unique in my own sphere are actually shared amongst others in the martial arts community. This emboldens me to continue my writing in the hopes to inspire others to overcome the challenges we sometimes face in the martial arts.

Renshi Cody Stewart

Renshi Cody Stewart is a Godan in Koryu Uchinadi and the YouTube personality of KU Quick Tips. I don’t think anyone challenges me as much as he does. It is because of this he is my favourite person to postulate theory with. I feel he adds equilibrium to my writing by asking the right questions, so I may come to my own conclusions. And he is also a savagely meticulous editor. Without his help I would certainly have much less to say with far more grammatical errors.

Josh Stewart

My dear husband, Josh is always the first and last to see my writing before I officially post it. A martial artist and writer himself—and a far better one, at that—I turn to Josh during my greatest insecurity in search of support. Whenever I ask him to read my work, he always has the right answer, “It’s good. I like it!” This is the little push I need to finally press the “Post” button and gives me the courage to expose what are sometimes intimate thoughts on the art I so very much love.

Chonin Kan and Toronto KU Study Group

My students and those I train with are my greatest muses. I feel a strong emotional investment in those I work with, both at my home dojo and in the Toronto KU study group.

As I mentioned before, when I feel, I feel deeply, because of this I feel their successes and failures, optimism and frustration concerning training as if I was experiencing it myself. They not only give me something to write about, they give me someone to write to. Many times, I’ve written blogs with specific individuals in mind. I don’t know if they’ve always read them, but like a message in a bottle, even if it doesn’t reach its intended destination, if it reaches and resonates with someone, it’s worth it.

You, the reader

I don’t know who are, but I am constantly pleasantly surprised and humbled that you chose to visit The Martial Arts Muse. I sincerely appreciate the time you take to read what I have to say. As a female martial artist, it’s not uncommon for me to experience a greater amount of questioning and interruption when expressing my opinion on the martial arts; it’s easy to feel like my voice isn’t heard or, at least, doesn’t hold the same value as if it comes from my opposing gender. The Martial Arts Muse has served as a means to overcome this and is an unimpeded way to shed light on issues that many of us are sometimes afraid to address.

I am sincerely grateful for everyone’s support this year. My life as a martial artist is truly charmed. I feel beholden to you. 

 

Dojo Disillusionment

The martial arts world attracts strong egos, big politics and more drama than a high school play.

Maybe, someone received a rank that you felt they didn’t deserve or someone of high esteem lacks what martial arts writer Dave Lowry calls “moral stamina.” Perhaps, there’s constant gossip and you hear more about the people training than about the skills you should be mastering.

Because of this, at some point, you may feel disillusioned and disheartened. You might even have the urge to quit and think “I don’t need this drama in my life. If this is what the martial arts attract, why am I still doing this?”

That is the question, isn’t it? Why am I doing this?

Japanese martial arts have been likened to a path. As many of us know, the term “do” is attached at the end of martial arts, like Judo and Kendo, that means “the way.” This suggests that the martial arts is a journey that goes beyond the cultivation of physical skill, and hones both mind and spirit.

There are many things that attract us to the martial arts when we first begin our journey. Some pursue the martial arts for self-defense, physical fitness, to avoid boredom and even just for a sense of community.

But, there’s something beyond physical reasons that makes us return to the dojo time and time again. It’s an intangible, not qualified by how hard you kick or the belt you wear.

Koryu Uchinadi Black Belt

Something more. . .

Something deeply personal. . .

Something else. . .

It’s the calm that radiates through the dojo when you’re the first and only person in there practicing.

It’s the final breath of your kata, when you know it’s the best you’ve ever done it, but bow with the knowledge it will never, ever be perfect.

It’s the effortlessness in which someone slams to the floor when you get a throw JUST right.

It is the moments that lie between aggression and tranquility. A harmonious combination of our most animal nature with our greatest serenity that paradoxically brings us into a frame of being that transcends words and our human imperfections.

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An internal stillness propelled by breath and what I call a “return to centre.”

It’s sometimes easy for our compass to become skewed in the mist of frivolous nonsense that seeps into our practice brought on by human inadequacies.

So, when you lose your way along the path, focus on the most basic of human functions, breathe and return to centre.

It’s in that moment you realize there was no trick of the light. . .

No magical unveiling. . .

And, there was no illusion to begin with.

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