Karate For “Perfection Of Character”: Truth Or Just Part Of The “Marketing”? – A Historical Perspective

“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants”.
Master Gichin Funakoshi.

The above words by Master Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan/Shotokai have been widely quoted, but I wonder if that was what his teachers had in mind.  Gichin Funakoshi had a number of teachers, but the main ones were Yasutsune Itosu and Yasutsune Azato.  Both of these had (prior to teaching Funakoshi) been body guards to the King of Okinawa.  In this role, they could have been faced with superior numbers of armed men, whilst they themselves were actually unarmed due to Japanese law.

If you had to face a superior number of men, they had weapons whilst you did not; which do you think you would be most interested in:

  1. Victory or defeat?
  2. Perfection of character?

I don’t doubt that self development/perfection of character has always been part of the training, but I do doubt that it would have been the main focus when your very life could be on the line.  However, it helps to have a look at what was happening in Japanese society when Funakoshi went to Japan and what Funakoshi’s own goals would have been.

Funakoshi travelled to and demonstrated Karate in Tokyo, Japan in 1922.  At that time Japan was modernising very fast.  Japan had been almost completely isolationist under the Tokugawa Shogun until being forcibly opened up by the American fleet in 1853.  This humiliation led to the overthrow of the Shogun and the reinstatement of the Emperor in 1868 (Meiji Restoration).  From this point on, Japan under the Emperor eagerly and hungrily absorbed whatever it could from the West, not least of all in terms of weapon and armaments.

Having found that raw recruits with a few hours training could easily shoot and kill a charging Samurai with several decades of training, it is understandable that traditional martial arts were being seen as obsolete from the a real combat point of view.  The rival clans and warlords had lost their power which had shifted from clan Samurai to the new Japanese military forces answerable only to the Emperor and Japanese government.   Japan was moving ahead more and more as a single formidable unit and developing it Imperial ambitions overseas.

From August 1894 to April 1895 Japan had fought China for control of Korea and had won.

From February 1905 to Sept 1905, Japan fought Russia over Korea and Manchuria and again came of best.

Parallel to this, it is interesting to note that after the death of the King of Okinawa (exiled in Tokyo since the Emperor regained control of Japan), Yasutsune Itosu started to teach Karate publicly in Okinawan schools in 1905.  He was then 71 and this was the first time that he’d taught publicly.  By 1905 Okinawa had been much more integrated into being part of Japan rather than just an occupied territory.  An ambitious Japan had military conscription and it had been noted that youths with Karate training had better physiques and took to military training better than those without Karate training.

So what were Itosu’s motives behind this sudden change in policy and teaching this previously secret art to the public for the first time?  It is hypothesised by Bruce Clayton PhD in his brilliant book, Shotokan’s Secret, that the bodyguards would have had some kind of oath of secrecy to the King of Okinawa.  When the king died in exile, the oath was no longer binding so Itosu was free to teach publicly.

Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating on a makawawa

 

As Karate trained youths performed better when conscripted, arguably this sudden expansion of Karate training was to prepare young men for war.  This may sound horrifying to us today, but that was a different society with different values and unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor was an important social value.

So bearing in mind that traditional martial arts were seen as obsolete from a combat perspective, and that you don’t really want school children damaging themselves too much in a playground brawl, what do you suppose was the emphasis of the teaching?  Most likely the emphasis would have been to toughen up young men physically and mentally.  Not for self defence in the usual (Western) sense of the words, but so that they could be physically and mentally tough when fighting with bullets, bombs and bayonets.  Being mentally tougher to serve the Emperor without question (and without mercy to the enemy) would have been “perfection of character” under those societal conditions.

But before we condemn, the British Empire (and other colonial powers in their day) committed many atrocities to build their empires.  We also taught our you men at school similar “values” to protect “king and country”.  This was considered normal and patriotic at that time.

Later in 1922 when Funakoshi travelled to Tokyo, many Japanese martial arts had already transformed from their combat form (Jutsu) to self development form (Do).  Judo had been created from Ju Jutsu, Aikido had been created from Aiki Jutsu and so on.  Furthermore the Japanese tended to look down on the Okinawans who they saw as a bit primitive and backward, so for Funakoshi to gain acceptance of his Okinawan art, he had to go with the flow of Japanese martial arts and emphasis the “Do” as well.

Funakoshi’s main sponsor in Japan was Jigoro Kano, creator of Judo.  Kano also worked for the Ministry of Education and represented Japan as the first Asian member of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), so he was a very influential ally to have.  As Kano had changed his combat Ju Jutsu into a sport and a Do, Funakoshi would have been obliged to do similar things with Karate.

That said, I do believe that Funakoshi took the self development side very seriously and was very genuine in his beliefs.  Unlike his teachers, he had never been a bodyguard, facing superior numbers of armed men.  Furthermore, there are hardly any records of Funakoshi getting involved in any real fights.  This goes back to his early years too, when he would have likely learnt the combat emphasis of the art.  In later years in Japan, Funakoshi was challenged many times by Japanese Judo and Ju Jutsu exponents, keen to show that their art was superior to this strange new art from backward Okinawa being introduced by this diminutive Master.  But Funakoshi consistently refused all challenges as he believed that it would be dishonourable to himself and his art.  It is unlikely that Funakoshi declined out of fear.  Funakoshi’s master, Itosu, at the age of 75 had been challenged by a Judo expert who thought that Judo should be taught in Okinawan schools rather than Karate.  Having dispatched his opponent (who was about half his age) with just one punch, Itosu applied first aid and left.

Funakoshi would have probably been able to do the same and gain respect and credibility for the effectiveness of Karate at the same time.  It could have been a good way to speed up Japanese acceptance and gain more students, but Funakoshi was adamant that he would not lower himself.  So this (and many other stories) would indicate that Funakoshi was indeed a man of great integrity and honour.  He did not just say that Karate was about self development, he lived according to what he taught.

In his autobiography he recalls how just after the Second World War ended Japan was in chaos and people were starving.  On his way home, he was accosted a by a younger man who tried to rob him.  Funakoshi was in his senior years and very short.  As the young man swung at him, Funakoshi easily evaded, then grabbed and squeezed the other mans testicles.  Most of us would say fair enough the young man deserved it.  But as Funakoshi reflected he realised that the young man probably had a family to support and acted out of character in shear desperation.  He was overcome by a terrible feeling of guilt and shame that he would have caused this man excruciating agony when he was already in such desperate circumstances.  Not many of us would have been so generous to a man who had just tried to mug us.  Most of would have proudly recalled the story of how we gave some young thug what he deserved.  Funakoshi was truly a man of great character and honour, no doubt his Karate training had a great deal to do with this.

 

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Conflict De-escalation: The Broken Record

One method of de-escalating a conflict is an old technique called “the broken record”.  It can be used when somebody is being confrontational and is intent on picking an argument with you, which you don’t want to get sucked into.

Just to be clear, this is primarily for use for verbal altercations, which have the potential to escalate, rather than when somebody is trying to actively pick a physical fight (though it does have some applications there too).  The idea is basically to repeat a simple phrase over and over, rather than responding to the other persons verbal attacks.  You answer like a broken record stuck in the groove (might be before some people’s time for those born in the digital era  :) )

In most cases if you try to answer the verbal attacks the aggressor will simply try to shoot down your answers and come back with more and more verbal attacks.  Often he/she will have no interest in discussing the matter and finding any resolution, they simply want to belittle and/or intimidate you.  So why waste your time and energy explaining your point to somebody who has no interest in reasoning and no interest in listening other than to find a new line of attack?  They are only interested in looking for more ammunition from whatever you say to use against you.  So why give it to them?

A recent incident reminded me of this.  Whilst driving through a roundabout, myself and a car behind me were both taking the opposite exit and going straight ahead.  He tried to pass me on the roundabout and when I continued straight ahead he felt that I’d cut him up.  He tooted at me and not wanting any trouble I ignored him.  Then he continued to drive too close to my car  in an unsafe manner, trying to intimidate me.

I saw in my mirror a very young lad who looked like a strong gust of wind would blow him over.  He gesticulated several times angrily with his hands and I ignored him.  There was also a young lady beside him.

When we came to the next roundabout, I just figured that this was not worth it so I made a complete circle on the roundabout so that he could get ahead of me and be on his way.  This seemed to work and away he he went.

However, when he realised that I was now behind him, he pulled into a lay-by to wait for me, then pulled in behind me when I passed.  I kept an eye on him as he followed me for several miles down the road.  When we reached the city I pulled of into a side road where I was working and stopped to check the map.  He followed me into the side road, passed me, turned round then drew up next to me with his window down.  I wound my window down.

The conversation went something like this:

Young driver:  “What’s your problem then”?

Me:  “What do you mean”?

Young driver:  “Cutting me up on that roundabout”.

After a brief explanation/discussion, it quickly became clear that he was a boy trying to act how he erroneously thought men behaved.  I’d guess that he was trying to impress the young girl who sat silently looking very uncomfortable throughout the whole incident.

Me:  “OK, you’re a big man, you’ve made your point.  Now move along”.

Young driver:  “It’s not about that.   You ought to learn how to f***ing drive”!

I could have pointed out that I’d been driving since before he was born, that I’d driven all over this country and on the continent (where they drive on the other side of the road), that I’d driven big vans/small lorries and hardly ever had any accidents at all.  But in his youthful wisdom he’d have just rubbished all that and probably told me that I whatever I’d done before, I was a bad driver now or that I should know better!  So why waste my breath and give him more ammunition.

Me:  “Just move along”.

Young driver:  “You just can’t admit that you’re wrong”!

I could of explained/argued that I was not in the wrong and corrected him, but he wouldn’t have accepted any of it and just argued that I was in the wrong.  So why waste my breath?

Me:  “Just move along”.

Young driver:  “You’re just a knob” (British slang for part of the male anatomy).

I could have returned the insult, because if he got physical he was clearly no match for me.  But he would have continued to give even more abuse; then what do I do, continue hurling yet more and more abuse back at him?

Me:  “Just move along”.

At this point, the young driver did move along.  He probably felt satisfied that he’d given some older guy a piece of his mind (not that he had much to spare) and impressed the young lady with how tough he was.

OK, with hindsight there was a couple of things that perhaps that I could of done better.  I could have simply apologised right at the very start, even though I didn’t think that I was in the wrong.  It’s only a matter of pride, but it saves time and energy.  I could have probably left out the comment about “OK, you’re a big man, you’ve made your point”, as that was unnecessarily provocative.  But then it’s always easy with hindsight.  And yes, I admit that I did let my pride get in the way a bit!

But the most important thing is, I just kept repeating a simple phrase in a nonchalant manner so that no matter how hard he tried, he was not able to escalate the confrontation or use anything else against me.  He very quickly ran out of things to say.   Wanting to beat the other person in an argument is only a matter of ego and as martial artists we should be above that.  I could probably have argued with him for a good half hour.  I might even of won the argument, but so what if I did!  How would it improve my life by spending a lot of time and energy getting one up on a cocky young lad with no real life experience?  The best result for me was simply to get rid of him quickly and efficiently without taking up too much time or energy and the broken record was the best way.

Whatever phrase you use will depend on the situation.  It just has to be something that they can’t take anything from and use against you to escalate things.

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Kata Bunkai for Shorin Ryu Pinan Shodan (Heian Nidan)

This is something that has been discussed on my Facebook page before, but I wanted to go into more depth with it.  Most traditional martial arts have been dumbed down.  Karate applications (Kata bunkai) were dumbed down when the Okinawans decided to introduce it into their school system in the late nineteenth century.  This dumbed down version was taught to the Japanese and from there to the Koreans.

Kung Fu too has suffered.  The Chinese were at first very reluctant to teach martial arts to anybody who was not full blooded Chinese.  Later it was realised that it could be quite financially lucrative to do so!  However, in the main they still held back a lot from Westerners.  It is known that when the legendary Master Ip Man was teaching Wing Chun to Bruce Lee, he held back some of the more advanced secrets because Bruce Lee was not full blooded Chinese.  If Bruce Lee was not taught the full system, what makes any Westerners think that they have been?

So moving on to the point of this post, I want to look at the end sequence of Shorin Ryu’s Kata (form/pattern), Pinan Shodan, as evidence of how Kata has been changed by people who most likely did not understand the meaning of the moves.  In particular I draw your attention to the end sequence which finishes with a Downward Block (Gedan Baria) followed by an Upper Raising Block (Age Uke).

You will notice that the performer goes into a fairly a low stance for the Lower Block, but very deliberately rises up when he performs the Raising Block.  Now if he was in fact actually “blocking” a punch, then it would make sense to move his head away from the punch.

It makes no sense at all to “block” a punch by pushing it upwards, as you move your head upwards at the same time.  If you don’t completely clear the attacking punch, then you are moving your head right into the firing the line.  In fact you probably end up with your throat in the position where the original attacking punch was aimed, which is even more dangerous.

If this so called Rising “Block” was actually an upward strike using the forearm to smash up under the chin and into the neck (which many martial artists now accept it as being), then it makes much more sense for the whole body to rise up.  One of the principles of linear Karate (such as Shorin Ryu) is that the techniques are powered by the momentum of the body movement.  In this case, the body momentum is clearly moving upwards and would be a great way to power an upward strike.  If you look at the above video closely again, you’ll note that as the performer executes the Raising Block, he actually steps through in a relatively low stance and only rises up at the end of step as he actually executes the technique.

The other consideration (which has been discussed many times before in very many places) is why would a Kata finish with a “Block”?  It means that your attacker is still able to continue attacking you.  Viewing this technique as a “strike” makes more sense as you can incapacitate your attacker and the fight/assault is over.

Now fast forward Shorin Ryu as it develops into Shotokan Karate.  The Downward Block and Raising Block sequence are performed at the same level without the performer raising up as he performs the Rising Block.

So why did this change?

It changed because the Japanese did not know that this technique was actually supposed to be a “strike” and it is not in their culture to question the master.  If you view this technique as a “block”, then there is no advantage in rising up as you execute the technique (in fact it would be a distinct disadvantage as mentioned above).  So as with many other movements within Kata, there was a lot of standardisation.  The heights of the stances were standardised so that the stances all stayed the same height throughout.

Of course many styles have been derived from Shotokan, so this is very much the norm in the majority of the Karate world today.  This is why I always encourage martial artists of any style to look at their Kata/patterns/forms with a questioning mind.  Also, don’t get hooked into looking for why your style is superior to others; instead look at other styles (especially your styles predecessors) to find out what has been changed and why.

The Japanese changed a lot of the Okinawan Katas because they did not understand the true meanings.  The Koreans changed a lot of their patterns to make them “more Korean” (hide the Japanese influences).  I don’t know so much about history of Kung Fu forms, but I do know some associations that train a very large number of forms yet barely scratch the surface of the applications.

Always question and always think for yourself!

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Martial Arts Training With Joint Injuries (Part 3)

OK, this is the last post on this subject, I promise  :)

There is a certain attitude in martial arts, that we don’t like to give in to pain or to complain about it.  We just soldier on.  But if you are suffering any kind of joint of pain or discomfort, get it properly checked.  I would recommend a good Osteopath, Chiropractor, Podiatrist or something similar rather than an ordinary doctor (known as a General Practitioner [GP] in the UK).  My personal experience is that when it comes to any kind of sports or physical activities injury, the GP will just tell you not to do it any more.  Well it makes his job easier!

That of course is not a satisfactory answer to a martial artist who wants his/her martial art to be a lifetime study.  Also (in my personal experience) the GP tends to look only at the symptoms and not what might actually be causing the problem.

Osteopaths and Chiropractors on the other hand tend to look at the body more holistically and are much more geared to getting us back into our chosen activity (be it sport or martial art).

When I was about 20, I had a problem with my knee.  There was so much swelling that fluid dropped down to the ankle which literally became about twice the size (due to the excess fluid).  After visiting the GP and having my knee examined I was told that he could not find anything wrong with the knee and to rest it.

So I rested, selling went down, trained, swelling came back, rested longer, swelling down, trained, swelling came back.

Back to the GP.  Another examination of the knee revealed nothing wrong and I was told to rest it longer.   So . . . . . . . rest it longer, swelling down, trained, swelling back, rest it longer, swelling down, trained, swelling back.

GP!

I was sent to the local hospital for an X-ray of my knee.  Guess what they found?

Nothing.

Guess what the advice was?

Yes you guessed it, rest it even longer.

That had taken about 3 months.  Desperate to get back to my training I tried an Osteopath.  He actually looked beyond just my knee.  He found a small mis-alignment in my hip joint which was affecting me knee.  He did a manipulation on the hip that night, told me to go back to training and take it easy at first and gradually build back up.  The problem disappeared and I very soon was able to get back into full training.  In 3 months of going to the GP and the hospital, they hadn’t even looked at the hip.

Now when it comes to Osteopaths and Chiropractors you have to shop around as they are not all good.  If you can, get a personal recommendation.

Another common problem these days is fallen arches in the feet.  This is common because our feet were not designed to walk of flat surfaces, they were designed to walk on sand, mud, earth etc, which our ancestors would have done bare feet.  On these surfaces, the arch of the foot is supported by the sand/mud/earth etc.  However, on flat surfaces which we have in every home, every office or factory, every pavement/sidewalk, or every training room floor; our arches are not supported (unless you wear special shoes).

Why is this an issue?

When your aches fall, your foot tends to rotate slightly to the inside edge.  This realigns your legs.  Over a period of time your muscles, tendons, ligaments etc will adjust and assume slightly new positions.  When you exercise vigorously, these new positions can cause all kinds of problems as mis-aligned parts rub against each other causing inflammation, swelling and pain.

Over yet more time, this can even affect your back giving you back pains.

I know this from personal experience.  Having been off training for a number of years due to a lot of domestic problems, my arches fell causing constant pain and discomfort with my knees when I did start training again.   It was a Chiropractor who pointed this out to me and arranged for me to have an orthotic insert to wear inside my shoes.  This supports the arch and adjusts the mechanics of how I walked.  Over time there has been a marked improvement.  I later went to see a Podiatrist to get a made to measure orthotic inserts rather than the off-the-shelf orthotics from the Chiropractor.  Gradually, slowly the situation has improved.  It’s still not perfect, but I’m able to kick much better and relax and sink into my stance more  easily (most of the time).

I can’t emphasise enough, if you are in pain when you train, get yourself checked out.  Try non-evasive treatments first (operations can’t be undone).  If they don’t work, then you can move on to the more drastic options later such as possibility of an operation.

Some supplements are good for joints too (though they won’t help much if the joints are mis-aligned).  Many people swear by Cod Liver Oil or Glucosamine.  Others use Ginger.  The thing that worked best for me is Collagen.  Until fairly recently collagen molecules could not be absorbed by the body orally as the molecules were too big.  Now some variants can be.  However, I would suggest you experiment to see what works best for you.

 

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Review Of Kevin O’Hagan’s Anatomy Of A Street Assault Seminar

Kevin O’Hagan, 7th Dan Combat Ju Jutsu and author of numerous books is undoubtedly one of the very best Reality Based Martial Arts instructors in the UK.  On Sunday 2nd Sept, I attended one of his seminars on the Anatomy Of A Street Assault.  As per usual, Kevin’s seminar was very informative, practical and thought provoking!

Kevin O’Hagan demonstrating with son Jake

The first section looked into the different types of assault, perpetrators motivation behind each type of assault, how to identify them and how to avoid being selected or how to defuse a situation once you have been selected.  This is the part that this review will cover.  There was a very pragmatic physical side to the seminar as well, but that is not covered here.

Firstly, it was made clear that we were not talking about fighting.  Kevin defined fighting as either combat sport, or when 2 people decide to step outside and “sort it out”.  A fight is basically where 2 people, for whatever reason, both consent to having a fight.  A street assault (subject of seminar) is where one person initiates violence and the other is unwillingly drawn into it.

There are only 2 real types of street assault, which are:-
*      Confrontational
*      Ambush

Confrontational

Otherwise known as “social” violence, where the perpetrator is generally showing of to an audience; trying to intimidate the victim and make himself look tough.  It is easy for the victim to be drawn into this if not careful and then it could degenerate into a fight (where the victim is provoked to the point of consenting to fight).

Generally this consists of staring and excessive eye contact.  When the eye contact is met and matched (which the perpetrator is looking for), then threats are made (usually accompanied by a lot of profanities).  This can escalate into pushing and shoving, more profanities and louder shouting, then eventually (if one of them does not back down) a big hay-maker is usually thrown, followed by a full on fight.

Going back to the first stage (staring), Kevin explained that the you simply do not meet the stare.  You glance around at the perpetrator, you can even nod at him in acknowledgement, but you do not hold and return his stare.  But you don’t turn your back on him either.  This way you let him know that you aware of him (he can’t launch a surprise attack), but you are not returning the unspoken (at this stage) challenge.  This may be enough to avoid escalation by not giving the perpetrator an excuse to escalate.  However, if he does escalate and aggressively ask who you are looking at, you simply apologise and say that you were looking at somebody near or behind him who you thought you recognised.  Either way, it is better to simply apologise than to end up in a pointless fight.

Perpetrators tend to de-humanise their victims, so try to make yourself very human to him.  You could say something like “sorry mate, I’ve just lost my job and wife’s left me and I’m having a really hard time right now, I really don’t want any more trouble”.  It might be enough!

Each situation will be different, so you have to make your decision at the time.  Another possibility is to try to put doubt into the perpetrators mind that he might be picking on the wrong guy by saying something like, “sorry mate I really don’t want any trouble.  I’m still on probation from the last fight I had and I really don’t want to go back to jail”!

If this still does not work then it could progress to the pushing and shoving stage.  At this point, if you don’t think you can talk him out of it then you have 2 main options; pre-emptive strike, or face him down with your own show of highly aggressive behaviour.

Whichever strategy you choose, you should already be in The Fence position.  You may say something like “is there nothing that I can do to persuade you not to fight me”?  Possibly you might get a positive answer that there is something you can do to avoid further conflict.  If you get a negative answer, then you will hopefully have witnesses to testify (if required) that you tried everything to talk him out of it.  At this point as you ask the question, you should be lining him up for a pre-emptive strike to a vital spot which will hopefully finish it all then and there.

Alternatively you may decide to push him away really hard and step back slightly as you do so.  The step back gives the impression that he has been pushed further back then he actually has been and giving an exaggerated impression of how strong you are.  At this point you launch your own tirade of threats, abuse and profanities to try to intimidate him into thinking that he has picked an even bigger nutter then himself.

Other factors to consider include that male victims will often not want to back down if they with their girlfriend/wife and the perpetrator will use this to provoke further.  This can include directly insulting the lady.  But Kevin pointed that most ladies would much rather walk away then have their guy involved in a fight, so a guy is just making a bad situation for his lady even worse if falls for the bait.  If however you have a lady who would want you to get into a fight, then Kevin’s advise was “get rid of her, she’s trouble”.

But each situation will be different so a judgement call will have to be made at the time.  Kevin also emphasised that as well as practicing the physical techniques, you should practice the verbal lines above in role play with a training partner, or you will forget them under pressure.

Ambush

Ambushes are asocial and the perpetrator does not want an audience.  These people are more “professional” then those who seek confrontation and they give no warning or build up.  It just happens and you have very little time to react or prepare in any way.

Kevin explained that the best way to avoid this type of assault is through awareness.  The ambusher is looking for an easy victim who they can assault (mug, rape) quickly and efficiently without any witnesses.  An analogy was drawn with lions hunting.  Lions always try to single out the young, old, frail or injured; who has strayed from the main herd.  In the same way, the human predator looks for somebody on their own and somebody who is not really aware of their surroundings.  This could be somebody who is engrossed in texting on their mobile phone, lost in their IPod, or simply putting groceries into the back of their car and not looking around.

Simply looking around so that the street predators know that you are aware of their presence (so they won’t be able to take you by surprise) can often be enough to deter them and have them look for somebody else.

It was also emphasised that if anybody tries to force you into a car or to go to a secondary location, do not co-operate in any circumstances.  At the secondary location the perpetrator can do whatever they like without fear of being caught.  Although at the original location they may be threatening to kill or maim you, THEY are still afraid themselves of being caught.  You are better off facing injury at the original site, then possible death at a secondary site.

General

This review only covers part of the seminar and there was much more to it that what is covered here.  Most martial art courses deal only with the physical skills of fighting.  Very few deal with avoiding or de-escalating a situation so that you don’t have to fight in the first place.  Kevin O’Hagan’s courses are applicable to people of any style and I would highly recommend them to any and all martial artists.

To contact Kevin  or to keep an eye open for future courses, go to his website, at www.KevinOHagan.com or befriend him on Facebook.

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