2 of the Worlds very best masters of applied traditional martial arts.
About 3 hair follicles between them
Sensei John Johnston adaptive Karate and Sensei Iain Abernethy are coming together again for another joint seminar in Derby, UK. Although they are both Karateka, the seminar is open to other styles, especially Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do which have close links to Karate.
I’ve attended courses with both of them individually as well as their last joint seminar and I can highly recommend this seminar to any traditional martial artists who want to be able to apply their art for real World self defence, not just sport.
I read the following post on Facebook today by Kevin O’Hagan, one of the Worlds best teachers of Reality Based Martial Arts. It sums things up so well that I thought I’d share it with you:-
“I read alot of posts on facebook these days about the age old question,’What is the most practical and effective fighting system. I hear shouts for Krav Maga, BJJ, boxing, Thai etc etc.
One of the things we must take into consideration is fighting is not self defence.Fighting or having a fight is about two participants agreeing to engage in mutual combat.
Self defence is about one party minding their own business getting on with life when unfortunately violence comes their way unexpectedly. These are two totally different things. If you are prone to fighting in the street you will have a very short shelf life. You will either be spending a good percentage of your life behind bars or eventually six feet under. Self defence can be split into two distinct areas. Confrontational and ambush. That’s it. A match fight is not in the equation.
In self defence if the situation warrants physical response and isn’t dealt with in 3 seconds it will deteriorate into a type of match fight but that is a rarity. Normally the first person to land a shot wins.
Self defence isn’t about sparring up and feeling out your attacker before you launch your deadly attack, it is about somebody sucker punching you in the head before you even know it, or pushing a glass in your face or a knife in your guts. There will be no posturing and twirling of the weapon or any bad ass dialogue before this happens.
It is about somebody grabbing you around the neck whilst you are checking your Iphone.
It is about being chasing down and having a pack of animals kick ten bells out of you.
In the world of match fighting it has been proved beyond doubt the big boys that stand up under pressure are boxing, wrestling, Thai and BJJ/submission wrestling. Why? Because they are mainly practised as combat sports.
Self defence is situational and scenario driven. It is a totally different world. Its not to say these combat arts can’t make the change over but they need to be adapted greatly. This is a huge topic on its own.
Having a row outside the chip shop or pub isn’t and never will be self defence if you have willingly engaged and not tried to find another solution.
Teaching self defence and teaching fighting are not the same thing”.
If anybody is interested in real world self defence, I’d highly recommend that you “like” Kevin’s page to find out when he runs his seminars. I might well meet you there!
It’s often been said that performing Kata/Forms/Patterns (Kata for convenience) is like moving meditation; but what exactly does that mean?
Well first let’s look at meditation then see how performing Kata can be similar. Meditation is a practice which (amongst other things) aims to silence the mind and help focus the intention. There are many variations, but (put very simply) one of the most common methods of meditation is simply to sit and focus all your minds attention on the breath so as to “distract” the mind from other thoughts. With time and practice, you get used to distracting the mind till it gets used to becoming quiet and absent of thought.
Generally speaking, many of our reactions to given situations (including what we would call “thoughts”) are just conditioned responses based on our upbringing and previous life experiences. We often respond to many situations with automatic responses, which have little or nothing to do with actual logical or rational thought or informed choice. Yet the self talk we hear in our heads makes us feel that we are actually thinking rationally and choosing our responses when we’re not really.
A busy mind with a lot of internal “self talk” can be distracting, cause stress (as self talk is usually negative) and often has difficulty thinking straight. Quieting the internal self talk with meditation can be useful for attaining calmness (cutting out negativity) and helping with the clarity of actual rational thought (cutting out distracting thoughts which don’t help).
There are also spiritual connotations as many people believe that you can connect to higher spiritual parts of yourself (usually called higher self or inner being). Now I know some people will believe in this and others won’t and it is beyond the remit of this post to argue that case either way.
However, without doubt, it is known that we only consciously use a small percentage of our brain, most people say about 10%. By silencing that 10% that we do have direct access too, we slowly learn to access some of the other 90% (our subconscious). This part does not usually speak to us directly with words or thoughts; but with feelings and intuition which guide us. This can be in a self defence situation, our job, relationships or any part of our life.
Furthermore the human brain takes in enormous amounts of information, most of which our conscious mind filters out (as it would be a burden to be aware of so much insignificant detail every second). However, when we have a problem or seek an answer, the subconscious which has absorbed this vast amount of information can sometimes give us an answer from this vast amount of information, which the conscious mind has filtered out. But we need to quieten our conscious minds long enough to become aware of it.
Now whatever your paradigm (higher self, inner being, subconscious mind); it all works basically the same way. Therefore it’s not worth arguing over which is right or wrong, all that is important is that by silencing the conscious mind we can access a higher level of intelligence/intuition.
Soooooo, back to Kata! Try observing your mind for a while (without meditating). High grade martial artists should have fairly quiet minds already as it is a side effect of our training, so this may not work too well with experienced martial artists. However, you can get your students to try this. Normally, after a while you will notice a certain amount of self talk inside your mind, this is natural.
Then choose a Kata that you know well and can perform without having to think or concentrate on. As you perform that Kata, put just a small part of your attention into observing your own mind. If you know the Kata well, you should notice that your mind falls silent as you flow from one movement to another to another, without the need for thought. The use of breath in meditation for distracting unwanted thought is replaced by the well rehearsed dynamic, fluid and powerful movements of the Kata. Instead of conscious thought there is intension, focus and a sureness of purpose. Ironically, some Kata movements can be quite complex, detailed and demanding; yet rather than thinking about them, we shut of thought to perform them!
The same is true of course of basics, but they are generally shorter, giving less time to gain the benefit.
If we can perform complex movements and turns; with power, grace, speed, balance, accuracy and poise better without conscious thought than with thought, surely that’s a lesson for other areas of our life. I’m not suggesting that we stop thinking altogether, but silencing the mind can bring benefits to many other areas of our life. It does actually help us to think more clearly and to an extent helps us overcome our automatic responses to situations where we respond from conditioning rather than from any rational thought.
Imagine a situation for example where one person picks a fight with another. Often the person being picked on (especially young men) will respond with a conditioned response such as, “who’s he think he’s talking to” or similar and actual clear rational thought has nothing to do with it. Being able to clear away the “who’s he think he’s talking to” self talk actually allows us to take the ego out of the situation, think more clearly and find a way out without having to resort to a pointless fight. With rational thought rather than conditioned response, we would usually observe a fool trying to intimidate us and why on Earth would we value the opinion of a fool? If we do not value the opinion of the fool, then it is easy to walk away and NOT be provoked by it! Why would a fools opinion be provocative? Isn’t that very rational and logical?
This is not an overnight thing, but slowly over long periods of time, we gain access to the deeper parts of our mind and intuition.
There is of course a lot more to it than what is covered here, but this is just a blog post and this subject could take a book. Please leave your comments below and let me know what you think?
Many traditional martial arts talk about Mind, Body and Spirit; or that training develops you spiritually. But what does this spirituality actually mean, how do martial arts help develop it and (probably of most interest to many readers) what use is spirituality in a martial context?
First of all, it could take a whole book to cover this big topic, so I’m not going to be able to cover it all in a blog post. All I’m aiming to do here is to give a brief overview of how I see it.
To quote Deepak Chopra, who is widely revered as one of the World’s greatest spiritual leaders, “if we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love and compassion, and also intuition, creativity, insight and focused attention”.
So is spirituality a higher level of awareness than most people experience?
Yes it is.
Most of us have conditioned responses and reactions to whatever happens in our environment. For example, let’s consider 2 people on a bus going to work in the same office for the same boss. The bus is stuck in a traffic jam and both people will be late for work. Let’s call them Peter and Paul for convenience. Peter gets stressed and upset, worrying about how late he’ll be and what the boss with say, whilst Paul just decides that there’s nothing he can do about it so just looks out the window and enjoys the view, the trees and the birds.
Which of them will get to work first?
They’ll both get there the same time as they’re on the same bus, so Peter’s worrying will make no difference at all.
Both Peter and Paul are subject to the same circumstances, but they have a very different experience of those circumstances!
Assuming that there is no favouritism from the boss, it is fair to say that Peter is acting out of a conditioned response. He probably reacts like that to most adverse situations. Now at this point I could write a lot about neural pathways and peptides, but let’s just call it as a conditioned response for now.
Paul on the other hand was able to rationalise that there was nothing he could do about it, so he was actually able to choose his response. That is a higher level of awareness! He would have been able to experience of the truth of the situation and the beauty of his surroundings as Deepak alludes to above.
Now try and think how many conditioned responses you have which lead you to being upset and unhappy? No sane person would actually choose to be unhappy. Given the choice, we’d all rather by happy and/or in a state of peace. So why do we allow so many things to upset us, which if we are brutally honest with ourselves, we don’t really need to be upset about!
Part of spirituality is about being able to mentally stand back from a situation, weigh it up, make the best impartial decision for the given situation and to be at peace with the circumstance, your decision and the outcome. Now there is an awful lot more to it this; many will talk about being connected to source/higher self, accessing intuition/divine guidance etc; but like I said above, this is a blog post, not a book. So for now, I’d suggest that this clarity of mind is one of the most practical applications of heightened awareness/spirituality!
So how does martial art training help us to achieve this?
It works on a number of levels. In many styles of Karate we have the Heian/Pinan katas which mean “Peaceful Mind”. As we learn to defend ourselves we feel more confident and with this confidence comes peace of mind.
Most martial arts exercises requires us to be very present in the moment such as focusing on getting basic movements rights. Anxiety is caused by focusing on where we want to be which is different to where we are now (living in the future). Regret is caused by focusing on bad things that have happened to us or mistakes that we’ve made (living in the past). Only by having our attention focussed in the present moment can we be in a peaceful state of mind, which is the most effective place to be when dealing with whatever issue faces us in that moment. But that is a subject for a whole book as well!
When practicing kata/patterns/forms we focus not only on the pattern of movements, but our balance, posture, body structures and mechanics, efficient generation of power, breathing and knowing where ever part of our body is at any given time. With practice we develop a great degree of body awareness. As mind and body are linked, body awareness helps to develop mental awareness.
Partner activities also make us stay very focused, even the pre-arranged activities. When we have a well trained martial artist coming in full speed and power, and we have to either block/evade or have our head knocked of our shoulders, we are usually very present in that moment.
This part varies a lot from school to school, but pressure testing our techniques against a non compliant training partner also leads to higher level of self honesty as to what actually works and what doesn’t. Sport martial art can do this too as long as we are honest that it is sport fighting as opposed to real life combat; you still find what does and doesn’t work under pressure. This knowledge gives an extra layer of self awareness.
Many martial arts, particularly Chinese and Japanese, include meditation which is good for silencing the internal voice in our head (which is usually negative), hence help us to stay focused in the present moment.
There are of course other examples of how martial arts teach us to be present, calm our mind and even silence the voice in head, but again, that could take a book to explain thoroughly. Together these aspects develop our self awareness and spirituality.
So is this just a nice side effect of training, or does it actually help us in a practical way with self protection?
This could be a subject of great debate, but I would say a definite yes. Just considering the advantages of having a greater clarity of thought:
• Do you actually need to fight some jerk that is provoking you, or can you stand back and decide that your ego is secure enough that you don’t need to fight him over his insults/provocation. You could even apologise to him if your ego will let you!
• Do you respond to provocation out of a conditioned response (be it fear, anger, whatever); or do you actually consciously choose your response?
• Does your tongue freeze, or do you find the right words to calm the situation and de-escalate it?
• Should things actually get physical, do you panic, does the “red mist” come down and you lose control; or can you keep calm enough to let your training do the work and exploit openings in the attackers guard?
There is a story of a Zen master whose students confronted him one day. They had been talking to the students of another Zen master who apparently could walk on water and they asked their master, what can you do? He replied, “I can eat when I’m hungry and I can sleep when I’m tired”.
Spiritual development is not just about being able to do special things. It has more to do with simply being more aware of your own mind and body and having clarity of thought without the ego adding filters to how you see your world and circumstances.
I am not suggesting for one second that being a spiritual person is enough on its own for you to be able to defend yourself. However, it is an extra level that works with the physical training and psychology of combat to help you survive a confrontation. Unlike reality based martial arts which gets results very quickly, spiritual development will generally take a long time to learn. However, it is important for self protection and it can also help you lead a much more happy, peaceful and productive life. Many people see self development and spirituality as the nice and fluffy side of martial arts; but they do have very practical applications, not only in self defence but in every aspect of your life.
And finally, just for fun, for those old enough to remember it, here are some relevant clips from the old Kung Fu series with David Carradine. Whilst the actual Kung Fu may be lacking (it had only just been introduced to the West back then), it is still to this day probably the best TV show of all time for covering the spiritual aspects of the martial arts.
“Kime” is a Japanese word, roughly translated as “focus”. It is where Karate derives it’s power from at the point of impact of a punching or striking technique. But how well is it understood?
Most people loosely describe achieving Kime as moving with relaxation, then tensing the whole body very rapidly at the completion of the technique with a heavy exhalation. But tension stops movement and do we really want to tense (hence not be moving or hardly moving) even be it for a moment?
Does it really add anything to the technique?
Is there another way?
Master Kousaku Yokota speculates in his book, Shotokan Myths,that as Kata (patterns/forms) competition become popular, the tension at the end of the technique became more and more exaggerated so that competitors could emphasis to the judges that they were actually focusing at the right places.
There is a story (which I’m not able validate) that Gichin Funakoshi’s son visited the Japan Karate Association (for many years the main driving force behind promoting Shotokan throughout the World). Apparently one of his comments was, “where did all this tension come from”?
For many years, Karate (Shotokan in particular) has been criticised by other styles for being tense, stiff and wooden; because of this heavy emphasis on tension at the end of a technique. It is called a “hard” style, despite it’s Okinawan roots being more akin to the “soft” Chinese styles from which Karate evolved!
Anyway, here are my thoughts on the subject. Please let me know what you think and leave your comments below.