Bruising Easily, A Reflection on Martial Arts

There are girls out there who use filters on Instagram to make their face look better. I use filters to accentuate the colour of my bruises.

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I don’t wear this palette of black, purple and blue as a badge of honour; these spots are simply a natural representation of how the martial arts affect me.

That being:

“I face enough negative experiences to give me character, but not enough to make me callous.”

The martial arts force us to confront negative experiences on a daily basis and sometimes one experience may be more intimidating than another.

With time these experiences leave a lasting impression, or in the case of my bruises, a rather large imprint.

But these experiences are usually not enough to truly hurt us. They’re just sketches of what COULD harm us; shading that is easily erased by the next time we train.

A fine example of this may be an elbow to the face while grappling. We know such a thing could happen. We know that such a thing could happen in real life. But, when it does happen unexpectedly in the safe confines of a class, it leaves a lasting impression in our mind and most certainly on our body. However, if we were to let it affect us beyond acknowledging its possibility, occurrence and surprise, we would likely never return to the classes.

Accidents like an elbow to the face, a knee to the groin and a good ol’ poke in the eye are all common. But, it’s never enough to make us leave or feel fear. If anything it naturalizes the blows we are taught to face and the pain they can inflict, and often we even laugh in the face of it. But, unlike the real threat of violence, it doesn’t leave us callous (or at least it shouldn’t if you’re in the right school).

Receiving these ink blots of the skin builds a certain type of immunity to violence; it doesn’t hold the same influence it once did.


With time it develops our character. You learn these so-called “injuries” are only skin deep, can result from both hitting and being hit, and the sight of them is no longer a cause of concern for you.

So, perhaps my bruises are a badge of honour. They prove practice. They prove force. And, as long as they only occur on my arms and legs, it proves I’m pretty damn good at blocking.

Your body is your canvas. Your training is your brush and paint. Bruising, pain and discomfort is a natural consequence of our training and with each class you paint your own masterpiece. It is a natural consequence of the art and with each lesson the image you create becomes more vivid.

Enjoyed this post? Check out “Dojo Disillusionment”!


A Good Training Partner Is Hard to Find

There you are. . .

At your first seminar with a big, important Sensei. . .

Once you enter the dojo, you start to size up the Karate folk around you—wondering what rank they are, how long they’ve trained and with whom.

Then. . .

The Sensei says “Partner up!”

You look around at your options and you think. . .

“That partner looks too hard. . .”

“That partner might also be too hard. . .”

“That partner looks too soft. . .”

“Ah. . . That partner looks juuuuust riiiight!”

But somebody stole them!

Suddenly, you’re paired with the 6’7” 400lb reincarnation of King Kong! Which might be fine for some things, but not necessarily the best-case scenario for learning throws or ground work, especially when you’re significantly smaller.

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Sure, you don’t always have a choice on who you partner with, but if you did have the choice, who would be the ideal partner to get the most out of your training?

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1. They’re better than you are and challenge you in the right way.

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If possible, you want to work with someone who is better than you are and can pick up on your mistakes. They won’t allow you to get away with being lazy or doing things incorrectly.  If you do something wrong, they call you on it. They know how to build you up from passive resistance to aggressive resistance.

2. They’re a similar size.

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When first learning a new exercise or principle, it’s ideal to be able to focus on execution alone without any further barriers which can arise with someone who is a lot bigger or smaller than you are. For example, if you’re working with someone taller than you, it can sometimes be hard to find the right leverage when their limbs are so much longer.

3. They are trying to learn (Not Compete!)

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They’re not trying to prove themselves, but to IMPROVE themselves and appreciate the learning process. They work WITH you through the learning process, rather than use you as means to impress the head Sensei or make themselves look good and feel better about themselves.

4. They have good hygiene

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I realize this one is a little strange. But, we all know it’s true! The last person anyone wants to work with is the guy who hasn’t washed his gi in a week, has bad breath or hasn’t clipped their finger and toenails.

5. They have fun!

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If you’re not having a good time, what’s the point? The best partners don’t just know how to work hard, but have fun and laugh at their mistakes.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t work with different sizes, ages and levels; there’s plenty of value in doing so and should be included in the training process, which I touch on in Lady Looks In a Mirror – Part 1.

However, in the initial learning stage of any technique or concept, especially if you have a full day of training ahead of you, it’s best to have a partner who can push you to improve in a way that is both fun and safe.

So, choose wisely!

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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.

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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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Being A Good Uke; It’s Harder Than You Think

Have you ever watched your Sensei choose one individual over and over again to be his Uke and thought, “Why not me!?”

In any seminar or class, you’ll find the head Sensei will consistently pick the same individuals to work with when demonstrating techniques. I think many of us would love to “volunteer as tribute” and feel the glory of being at the front of the dojo with your head Instructor!

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But, there are many reasons why some people are chosen more than others.

From time to time, an individual is chosen because of their size. A Sensei may choose the largest person in the room—usually to prove a point about technique vs. strength/size.

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Sometimes an individual is chosen because of flexibility, so that the Sensei can execute the full extent of an armbar or leg lock without the individual tapping.

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But usually, one is chosen as a demonstration Uke because they’re amongst the best in the room.

You would think that letting the teacher hurt you would be easy, that any dumbie can do it!

But, not just any dumbie, a very skilled dumbie. . .

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To be a good Uke and especially an Uke for demonstrations, you literally have to know what you’re getting yourself into. By that I mean you have to be familiar with many, if not all, the possible positions the Sensei may put you in, sometimes without the Sensei even telling you what she/he will be applying. So, unless you have a crystal ball with you, you either have to have superb body awareness and biomechanical knowledge or completely memorized the curriculum.

The Sensei, like Goldilocks, is looking for someone that is not too hard or too soft.

They’re looking for an individual that will

  1. Comply and restrict at just the right moments and with just the right intensity
    • Nothing (and I do mean NOTHING!) is more annoying to a head Sensei than a Uke who anticipates a technique and gives an unrealistic reaction, like moving before the technique was actually applied, OR actively resists when the Sensei is demonstrating. The key here is to respond, not anticipate, the Uke must have a complete understanding of the intent of every technique that they are subject to and respond accordingly with enough resistance for the demonstration to run smoothly and realistically.
  2. Set a good technical example when they return a technique
    • The Uke must know how to receive, counter and execute techniques with the same speed, power and skill as the Sensei applying it. If the Uke does not adequately perform a technique, the lesson the Sensei is trying to teach could be lost and the entire group could end up doing the technique, counter or sequence completely wrong! (No pressure or anything!)
  3. Most importantly, make the head Sensei look good!
    • As an Uke, it is your responsibility for the demonstration to look as good as your body will physically allow because when you are asked to present with the Sensei (especially at a seminar), you have become a representative of that Sensei, an extension of their name/style.

AND

The Uke must do all of this while being submitted to various degrees of pain, being put in the most awkward of awkward positions and essentially getting the crap kicked out of them!

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So, the next time you ask “Why not me!?” remember we often overlook the skill of the Uke. Instead, concentrate on the small details the Uke demonstrates because getting the crap kicked out of you isn’t as easy as you think.