This is a very big topic which you could probably write a whole book about, so I will attempt to do justice to this topic but please accept that I can’t cover it all in just a single post. There is much written about the subconscious and conscious minds, but this post will mainly focus on how the 2 parts of the mind relate in a martial arts context.
The role of the conscious and subconscious mind has been likened to the captain and crew of a ship. The captain (conscious mind) makes the decisions and decides on the direction of the ship, and the crew (sub conscious mind) makes it happen.
So lets start with simply practising the basic movements. Your conscious mind decides that you will perform a giventechnique. As we repeat this technique over and over again, specific cells in our brains called neurons join other neurons which control this movement. This creates Continue reading “The Conscious And Subconscious Minds In Martial Arts” »
There has been some debate over the years about stretching before training in martial arts and also for exercise in general.
I’ve heard some martial artists say that they don’t stretch before training as they’d rather train with the body that they have than the body they’d like to have! Meaning, if you were to get involved in a physical altercation, you won’t have chance to warm up and stretch; so your body will not be in the same state for that altercation as it is when you’re training and you’ve had chance to conveniently warm up and stretch out! They continue that if you want to stretch to improve your flexibility, do it when you get up in the morning, so that your body gets used to being like it all day.
As most people will know, there have been several terrorist attacks here in the UK over recent months, two of them involving vehicles running people over and following up with knife attacks. Now the chances of actually being caught up in such an incident, I would say are very unlikely. However, you never know!
For anybody not familiar with the phrase, a McDojo is a school that teaches a watered-down and impractical form of martial arts in the name of making money. The “Mc” is taken from “McDonald’s”, as in mass produced – low quality! They usually have all the expensive designer gear too, which you have to buy from them of course.
Many real martial artists complain about the rise of the McDojo (myself included). Many martial artists complain that those who train with McDojo’s do so because they want to get easy belts without working hard! I don’t think that’s the case as those people don’t know any better, many of them haven’t seen proper martial arts before so don’t have anything to compare with! In fairness, many of McDojo’s give a good physical workout and are fairly strict on the discipline; it’s just the martial content that is lacking. And I’m not even talking about sport martial art here, as serious sport martial artists can really move with speed, accuracy and good technique.
“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.
This clip above is now an iconic scene from the Bruce Lee movie, Enter The Dragon, where Bruce Lee is teaching a student.
Bruce Lee: “Kick me”.
Student looks surprised.
Bruce Lee: “Kick me”.
The student kicks
Bruce Lee: “What was that? An exhibition? We need (pointing to his temple) emotional content. Try again”.
The student kicks again.
Bruce Lee: “I said emotional content, not anger. Now try again, with me”.
The student kicks again, but more sharply.
Bruce Lee (with a smile): “That’s it”.
There is more to the scene, but this is the part that I want to cover in this post.
What emotion do we need to feel when training or even defending ourselves and/or loved ones for real? As Bruce says above, not anger. But what? I’ll come back to that later.
Emotions do effect our whole body. Those who are into spiritualism will often say that we vibrate at a higher frequency when we are in more positive emotional states (love, happy, excited) then when we are in more negative states (fear, anger, frustration).
For those that are more science based in their thinking, we have a small part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which creates chemicals known as peptides. Every emotional state that we experience has a separate peptide to go with it. When we go into any given emotional state the hypothalamus will produce the corresponding peptides which circulate the body via the blood stream. Each cell of our body has many tiny receptors on them which are designed to receive these peptides. When these peptides enter a receptor, they actually send a signal into the cell.
I personally believe in both, but the bottom line is we are affected on an cellular level when we change our emotional state. So which is the best emotional state to be in when we need to defend ourselves and/or our loved ones?
I decided to conduct an experiment with some of my adult students. But first the disclaimers:
This experiment was only conducted with 4 students (not exactly large scale).
This has not been pressure tested (see, I said it first).
So I am not suggesting that the results are hard evidence, just an indicator.
I asked my students (2 men and 2 ladies) to select the kata (pattern/form) which they felt that they could perform most competently. I told them that we were going to conduct an experiment, that some of what I was about to ask them to do might seem strange and contrary to my normal teachings, but to just go with the flow and give it a go. And they would have to use their imaginations.
The experiment was in 2 parts. Firstly I told them to close their eyes. Then to imagine that somebody had hurt somebody that they loved or had wronged them in some way. That they hated and loathed this person who was truly a nasty bit of work and who deserved no sympathy. As they performed their kata, they were going to visualise destroying this person who completely deserved it and with no mercy at all. There was a bit more embellishment, but you get the drift.
One of the ladies was struggling to contain a small smile. Was she not taking the experiment seriously I wondered?
I told them to open their eyes, and “go”.
Their kata’s did not really look much different to any other time to be honest. Towards the end, one of the men turned and bumped into the other one, and the 2 ladies had giggles. I must admit I was a bit disappointed, as they didn’t seem to be taking it seriously.
But never mind, on with the second half. I told them to close their eyes again. This time, I told them to think of somebody that they loved. It could be a boyfriend/girlfriend (non of them married), a family member, a child, maybe niece or nephew (none have their own children), or it could be a close friend that they cared about very much. Somebody was going to hurt their loved one and they were the only one who stood between their loved one and the aggressor. They were going to have to fight to protect their loved one from harm. They were to focus their mind on how much they loved the person they were going to protect, how they would do anything, risk anything for their loved one. Rather than thinking of anger and hate, they were to focus on love.
There were no smiles this time. I had them open their eyes, and “go”.
One of the men was of like a battle tank on steroids, I’d never seen him move quite like it before. The others did not look greatly different from before, but completed their katas with more focus, without bumping into each other and without any giggles.
I asked them afterwards, with which emotional state did they feel that their techniques were better?
Well Mr Battle-Tank-On-Steroids definitely felt better when in the love/protecting emotions than in the hate/anger emotions. The others were a bit more hesitant and unsure at first, then one of the ladies offered that when doing the hate/anger emotion, she felt a strange tingling which didn’t feel right. The other lady agreed that she felt the same.
Basically, they rejected these feelings because being full of hate and anger was an alien feeling for them. We all get angry at times, but most well balanced people find it difficult to sustain a state where we have absolutely no compunction about hurting and destroying another human being. Yes I know there are exceptions, but I’m talking about the majority of well adjusted civilised people. I guess this explains the giggling and smiles as they could not relate to this state!
I then asked them about mental clarity. Did it feel any different between the 2 emotional states. They all agreed that focus and sense of purpose was much better during the love/protection emotional state.
I had to comment afterwards that isn’t it ironic that they performed better at a fighting art when in a state of “love” rather than “hate”!
OK, I know there are many limitations in this experiment and it hasn’t been pressure tested. Arguably, none of them even really achieved the state of anger/hate, so it could be argued that the experiment was void! It would be much easier to hate when hurt for real.
But how does this relate to defending yourself rather than others?
Well to my mind (and this could lead to an interesting debate) is that you should love yourself. Not in an arrogant and conceited way, but by being at peace with who you are and what you stand for and live by. Martial arts literature is full of talk about self development and being a better person. Being able to defend yourself obviously gives you more confidence so you can stand up for what is right and for what you believe in.
But does standing up for what is right and what you believe in make you more able to actually defend yourself?
One of my former Sensei’s has admitted that he used to get into a number of fights when he was younger. He says that when he felt he was in the right, he always won. When he got into fights that he didn’t necessarily believe in, or perhaps others around him persuaded him to fight, he didn’t do so well.
Obviously somebody who is much bigger, stronger and better trained will nearly always beat somebody who is small, weak and untrained. I’m not suggesting that if you just lead a good honourable life, you’ll be able to defeat anybody, you do the physical training too. What I am suggesting however, is that with 2 people who are closely matched, the one who feels that he is fighting a just cause and who is in alignment with his/her own personal integrity will fight harder than somebody who is just out to bully! The old masters always taught that we should live with integrity and humility. If we live that way, then should we be forced to fight we shall do so with a clear conscience. We can “love” (or at least feel good about) ourselves.
As I’ve said above, this little experiment is far from conclusive. However, I’d like to invite you (especially instructors) to carry out similar experiments yourself and report the results in the comments below. It would be nice to get a little data base of similar experiments here for others to share.
“The brain processes 400 billion bits of information a second but we’re only aware of 2,000 of those. That means that reality is happening in the brain all the time”. Joseph Dispenza from the DVD: What The Bleep Do We Know?!
If you were to look at a tree, you could probably see every leaf on that tree (depending on angle etc). But would you know how many leaves were on that tree?
If you tried to recall in great detail let’s say your 5th birthday, could you do it?
Yet under hypnosis people have been taken back to events in their early life (such as early birthdays) and they can recall the events of the day in great detail. The brain is a phenomenal computer with massive retention of detail, be it the number of leaves on a tree or what present your Aunt Gertrude gave you on your 5th birthday, how it was wrapped and that fact that you already had one of them from the previous Christmas! But do you need that much recall? If you went through your whole life with all these facts, figures and memories bouncing around, it would be hard to function due to the overload of information. That is why our brains have filters, which cuts out some of the information that we perceive we simply don’t need. They serve to keep our conscious mind only fed with the amount of information it can cope with and primarily focused on the most important things. For example, you become aware of the car coming down the road as you cross over, rather than how many petals there are on the tulips in the garden on the other side. One piece of information could save your life, so it prioritised over the other which will generally be filtered out.
Sometimes these filters malfunction a bit. Have you ever had the experience where you’ve lost something, looked all over for it and been unable to find it, then some clever bugger comes in as says “here it is”, in a place that you looked closely at several times. You wonder how on Earth you could possibly have missed it!
Basically, your own brain sometimes gets a block and filters out information that you need, but fortunately this is not that common.
These filters are of course largely based on our upbringing and life experiences telling us what is and isn’t important. However, we can often get things wrong and we can easily be filtering out important pieces of information!
Our social conditioning too can affect us. Is that guy offering to help carry a ladies groceries just being an old fashioned gentleman or is he trying to find an excuse to get closer to her and perhaps attack her later? Sometimes social conditioning and education causes our logic to over-ride a gut feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that any guy who offers to help is a potential rapist, but you can see how if somebody is raised to expect good manners, they may overlook some other warning sign!
“Your mind has a spam filter on it, just like your email. There are literally billions of calculations going on every second just in your body alone”.
“Your spam filter is blocking out everything that is not important to you. Until you tell your brain that something is important, then it will keep it filtered out”. Andy Shaw, author of Creating A Bug Free Mind.
Bearing in mind that we are capable of taking in vastly more information than we are consciously aware of; sometimes our unconscious mind will notice something that our conscious mind has missed.
Maybe that friendly looking guy who is being so helpful was in the newspaper last year as a rape suspect or mugger. Your conscious mind doesn’t have a chance of remembering, but your unconscious mind does. The unconscious mind cannot communicate this directly to the conscious mind, but it can communicate by emotions. It can give you that gut-feeling we call intuition!
I know this is a simplistic example, but it can take many forms. Let’s say for example that you’re walking home late at night and you have 2 options of which route to take. For no apparent reason, one of them just doesn’t feel comfortable. Your logical mind tells that this route is shorter, reasonably well lit and you can’t find a good reason why you don’t feel safe. Perhaps your conscious mind has forgotten that you saw some shady looking character walking down that way earlier and your unconscious is concerned that they might still be lurking around. It sends you an uncomfortable “feeling” to warn you.
I’ve always believed that women tend to be more intuitive than men, as men rely on logic more. Sometimes logic is good, but sometimes it can be our undoing as there is a time and place for both. Women for example, often know when they are being lied to, yet if you ask them how they know; very often they don’t have a clue. They just know, their intuition tells them. The giveaway signs of a tiny shift in a person’s body language, maybe lack of eye contact, some almost undetectable change in tonality; the unconscious mind receives it all and process it even if the conscious mind can’t.
So intuition can be a useful life skill in relationships, work, whilst driving, just about any facet of life including of course your self-protection. As with the examples above, it can save us getting into a dangerous situation in the first place by listening to the gut feeling which defies our logic and social conditioning.
Assuming that you gone somewhere and everything is fine, no warning signals and everybody is happy; then suddenly out of the blue without any warning, somebody starts to pick a fight. When somebody is picking a fight there are certain clues as to when they are actually going to stop talking and threatening and actually physically attack. That is not the subject of this post as to cover it properly would take too long. However, if you want to pursue this subject in depth then I recommend Geoff Thompson’s book, Dead Or Alive.
If you asked most people to list the signs that a physical attack is imminent, most people wouldn’t really be able to give an in depth answer. However, your unconscious mind will pick up every sign and feed it back to you, if only you are able to be aware able to notice these signals.
Even in a more friendly setting like a competition or just club sparring, some people seem to have the uncanny ability to automatically know just when their opponent is about to move no matter how much the opponent tries not to telegraph their technique. It is almost as if some people can “read” their opponents. This is basically intuition. Their years of training have taught them to read every sign, even the slightest of change of breath, the slightest change in facial expression or bodily tension before an before the opponent attacks, which gives away their intention. Again, the defender may not actually consciously realise that they know these signs or what these signs actually are, but their unconscious has long since learnt to recognise them. And if their conscious mind is calm and quiet, it is able to receive this warning information from the unconscious mind.
Developing your intuition is almost a side effect of Mushin (calming the mind and silencing the inner voice). The silenced conscious mind can receive ideas from the unconscious mind. It can receive, acknowledge and respond to the emotions sent by the unconscious mind in the form of a gut feeling or intuition. You could call it an instinctive knowing. I say “almost” a side effect of Mushin, because when we start to feel these intuitions, even if we have become good at Mushin, we still have to take the leap of faith and actually trust these messages that we have started to receive. Even if we can think very clearly in a crisis, we still have to learn to trust that sometimes we don’t need to think, we just need to allow ourselves to respond automatically without any thought at all.
Many self development/spiritual teachers’ today talk about “being present” or “living in the now” (which is the same thing really). It’s also part of Zen, which is often goes hand in hand with martial arts. But what does this actually mean, how can martial arts training help you achieve it and what benefits are there for you from both a self protection and everyday life point of view?
Let’s start with what is meant by “being present” or “living in the now”? This is a big subject which many books have been written about, so this is just a short overview. Many people spend most of their time living in regret over things they’ve done wrong, things they should have done but didn’t, things that other people have done to them, missed opportunities; whatever! They are spending a lot time focusing on their past and generally feeling bad and unhappy with it.
Others spend their time daydreaming about the future (long or short term). They feel that they’ll be happy when they get home from work, finish that course they’re doing, get a better job, leave a job, when they’re married, when their divorce comes through, when they go on holiday, when they get back home and can relax; whatever. These people are postponing being happy until sometime in the future so again they are feeling bad or unhappy in the present moment. This is not to say that we don’t make plans for the future or set goals; it is to say that stay present while do actually plan and goal-set and that we don’t postpone being happy until our plans and goals are achieved!
In both cases, those concerned are focusing their attention on being somewhere other than where they are now. Either they feel that they can’t be happy because of their past or they feel they can’t be happy until some future events happen. In the meantime they are physically in the present moment though mentally they are not. As many Eastern and holistic philosophies tell us, we cannot really be content until mind and body are one (in this case, mind focusing on the present where the body is). The more you put of being happy where you are now, the more you will never be properly happy and at peace with yourself at all. This is one of the key components to the Eastern ideal of reaching enlightenment. There is of course much to it than that and this is a very simplified overview.
Being able to actually focus our attention in the present moment most of the time is actually not very easy for most people. Usually most people only manage it for short periods of time.
Martial arts are great for bringing you into the present moment! If for example you are doing pre-arranged sparring and you facing somebody of a high standard, you know that if you don’t block/parry/evade, they’ll probably take your head off. That tends to focus the mind and shut out any thoughts of that row you had with your spouse, that stressful drive home after work or how you’d like to practice you most dangerous techniques on that illegitimateson of a . . . . . . female dog . . . . . . boss of yours at work. You are purely focused on this guy in front of you with a sinister expression on face, his eyes locked into your eyes and he moves like a bull on steroids (or at least it seems that way).
Everything else in the world, the past and future is shut out whilst you face this imminent threat, which you have to block and counter. The little bit of adrenalin generated helps you to move faster and the exertion helps you to produce endorphins (the brains “happy” chemicals). You are very present in the NOW and you feel good about it!
Any other form of exercise also generates endorphins which will help the feel-good factor. However, losing a goal/point/match etc simply does not have the same urgency as facing Mr Bull-On-Steroids trying to take your head off. By contrast, many people say that they enjoy jogging long distance as it allows them to get lost in their thoughts. Whilst this can have benefits too, it is not the same being forced into now (or lose your head).
Even with the basics and kata, you are required to maintain considerable concentration on both the accuracy of the movement and the intent of the technique being performed. There can be no getting lost in your thoughts here. You can get a bit distracted worrying about whether you are keeping up with your classmates or not, though you really shouldn’t bother about this. It is often said in martial arts that your main opponent is yourself, meaning you challenge yourself every time you train to continually improve. If you do this then you should be very focused in the present, examining your own techniques as you perform them and putting your full intention into every movement. Comparing yourself to others occasionally is alright as a way to measure your progress, but is not an end in itself.
All aspects of martial arts training, (whether focussing on perfecting technique or being partnered with somebody about to try to take your head off) will help you to focus in the moment. There will be times when you think, “oh no, he’s going to take my head off”, which is again looking into the future (albeit a few seconds into the future) rather than being in the precise moment. Some people will be consumed by such negative thoughts on a very regular basis. As discussed in a previous post, practicing Moksu and Mushin will help to silence these thoughts. However, training in an environment where we are constantly forced to focus on the present moment will also help us to silence those self doubting thoughts as well.
When you need to be very intensely in the present moment then it is very important to be able to silence any thoughts which by their very nature take you out of that moment. When faced by somebody about to take your head off, the precise present moment is where your attention needs to be. This is true both in training and when defending yourself from a real life assault. When you partner up with somebody who is experienced, they just seem to have an air of certainty about them. A black belt will usually only be very fractionally faster than say a brown belt. However, the black belt will usually have a far greater air of confidence and self assuredness when compared to lower grades. This is often referred to as fighting spirit, the focus of ones will and clarity of purpose with no (or at least, very few) mental distractions or doubts.
People who have achieved this level of spirit in training and/or in real life altercations will very often be a force to be reckoned with in other areas of their lives too. If they can be very present under the intensity of combat (even simulated) then they will be able to some extent to transfer this presence and focus to other areas of their lives.
I read years ago that soldiers who have been in actual combat reported afterwards that they have never felt “so alive”. That is not because they actually enjoyed the combat, but the fact they could die any second is a great incentive to intensely focus themselves in the present moment. I’m not suggesting that we all rush of and join the force and seek real combat, but our martial arts training does have some overlap with this phenomenon!
How often have you heard the phrase “before you can overcome others, you must first overcome yourself”, or “your main opponent is yourself”. If you’ve never heard these phrases, then take a long look at who’s teaching you! You should have heard these phrases before as this really is one of the most central core philosophies of doing any traditional martial art.
Whether you are looking for effective self defence, sport or simply aesthetic mastery of the art you practice you must first develop co-ordination, agility, speed, power, poise, balance and grace. From a combative point of view, the need for speed, power, co-ordination and balance are obvious; but grace? Do we need to be graceful in a fight? Many consider the very act of fighting to be very disgraceful.
However, if you execute a technique and for whatever reason the opponent deals with it and counters, you have to react exceedingly fast to defend against his counter. This kind of speed requires an instinctive reaction rather than a thought or reasoned one. If we are focusing on strength, we become rigid (the more you tense a muscle the less it can move). If we are rigid, then we cannot react very fast to an abrupt reversal in the fight and we have to hope we can absorb the punishment long enough for us to recover the initiative.
Whilst we would all no doubt agree that the ability to absorb punishment is useful, I’m sure that we would also all agree that it is not something that we should rely on as a fighting strategy. If we can move out of the way with ease and fluidity, we don’t have to absorb so much punishment and can regain the initiative much more quickly by simply not being where our opponent expects us to be. To move very quickly like this requires a high level of fluidity, and fluidity requires graceful movement! Don’t be fooled into thinking that grace lacks power, as it is quite the opposite. Grace comes from perfection of technique and perfection of technique comes from mastering the self. This brings us back to our opening paragraph about overcoming yourself before you can overcome anybody else.
This is why so many traditional martial arts place so much emphasis on drilling basics and kata, and why these are very often done before any partner activity. In the modern world where there is an upsurge in what has become known as “reality based martial arts” and the pressure testing of mixed martial arts cage fighting; traditional martial arts have become seen by many as obsolete, too stylised and more for sport or self development than for real world self protection.
Note: Reality based martial arts are often scenario based. It may include shouting, swearing, abuse and verbal threats to psychologically prepare the defender as this is obviously more real to a street confrontation. Sometimes even high grade martial artists do not know how to deal with this raw aggression and psychological pressure.
It is often pointed out that many traditional martial arts applications only work when the attacker is co-operative and conveniently attacks with a single straight punch (or kick) then freezes whilst the defender practices his counter.
These charges do hold a lot of merit. However, reality based martial arts can easily be included into traditional martial arts (and in my view, should be) and there are many people researching practical applications to replace the pre-arranged stylised attacks and counters that are still very widely taught.
Traditional martial arts however, are more technique based than scenario based and goes deeply into perfection of movement. Is this waste of time compared with learning the psychological aspects of scenario based training?
To draw an analogy, many professional dancers in the big shows, backing the world’s most famous pop stars have a foundation in ballet. Ballet is such a precise and co-ordinated art form that once the dancer is adept in it, he/she can apply that high level of control and co-ordination to almost any other form of dance.
Some of the most charismatic actors have a background in Shakespeare. Look at the authority and commanding screen presence of actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. The classical background in most cases (dancing, acting, martial arts and others) gives the practitioner a deep foundation on which almost anything can be built.
Kevin O’Hagan, internationally renowned teacher of reality based martial arts and author of many books has said that traditional martial artists always pick up the reality based teachings more quickly than those who have not.
Seeking perfection of technique is not only developing us physically and mentally, but is actually very practical in the long term for building a foundation for self defence skills. Over the years I have visited many martial arts clubs. In one particular Kung Fu club, the instructor was proud to tell me that he made all his classes different every time. He did not bore his students with endless repetition. One of students agreed enthusiastically, telling me how he used to do Shotokan Karate and got bored drilling the same old basics every single class. However, this student who had done the Shotokan drilling stuck out amongst the rest and was clearly better than the other students. The repeated drilling had given him a foundation and an advantage that he had not appreciated.
I want to make clear that this is not a criticism of Kung Fu, only the way that this particular instructor taught it.
Striving for perfection, even though we know that we’ll never actually reach it, does in itself also develop a certain mindset. A mindset of wanting to make something the best it possibly can be. This has many connotations for other areas of our lives, be it school, work, relationships, driving, other hobbies, whatever!
The Japanese have the concept of delayed gratification. This is also known in the West, but is not emphasised as much. The idea is that we work at something over a period of time and delay our feeling of gratification until we have achieved it. Like a grading for example. Even going through the Kyu gradings (coloured belts) we have to wait 3 months in between each one. But when we do pass it, we have a feeling of gratification which lasts. When we get our 1st Dan the feeling of gratification is much stronger and lasts much longer. We still have a feeling of pride years afterwards as we know that we have achieved a benchmark in our training. For many of us, it even becomes part of how we identify ourselves, which along as it is not accompanied by arrogance is a good thing.
Too many people, especially in the West are very much into instant gratification, be it drink, drugs, sex, smoking, or just watching a good movie. I’m not saying that these things are necessarily bad (being a normal healthy guy myself who . . . . err . . . . likes a good movie); but if they are our only sources of gratification in life, then they will be short lived as there is not much to sustain us and maintain a feeling of fulfilment from one source/event of gratification to the next. We are therefore not really at peace with ourselves.
Having a long term goal, a long term project or training regime does give us that something to sustain us and help us maintain a feeling of fulfilment in between the other more instant sources of gratification.
There are countless things that people can work on, train for, set goals about; but few can inspire for a lifetime like martial arts. In most sports or physical pursuits people reach a peak then tend to move on as they age. Martial arts (when taught properly) can be adapted as we age and we can work on other aspects. In our youth it is good to make the most of our raw athleticism of, but as we get older we may focus on for example our timing and deception. No matter how much we know, how much we’ve trained, how much we’ve taught; there is still something else we can work on and improve however old we get.
The fact that we will never reach perfection means that we can spend our whole lifetime looking for it and rather than feeling bored we feel fulfilled the closer we get to it. This is part of where spiritual development comes into martial arts, something often referred to but seldom explained.
Lori O’Connell is a 5th Dan Jiu Jitsu expert and respected author with her second book on the way. Having studied a wide range of martial arts she has a deep and broad knowledge of all areas of self defence. Unlike many other teachers, she has the experience to know what will work in the street as opposed to what works in the ring with a referee in control.
Being quite petite, she is the first to admit that she does not have size or strength on her side, but she makes up for this with technique and tenacity. I have been very lucky and honoured to secure an interview with this busy lady and I will be reviewing her new book when it comes out next month.
So, over to the interview:
CW: Lori; martial arts are different things to different people, (sport, self defence, self development, fitness, etc). What are the most important aspects of martial arts to you and which aspects do you emphasis most in your teaching?
LO’C: Self-defense, self-development, and fitness.
CW: Please tell us how you first got into martial arts and what style(s) did you originally started with?
LO’C: I started with Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu, the style I continue to teach today, but I have trained in a number of other arts over the years. I first got into it at the age of 16 partly for self-defense, but also because I wanted to be a “strong woman” like so many movie heroines that were in movies in the 90s that had made an impression on me.
CW: You’ve practiced a number of other different styles along the way, apart from Can Ryu Jiu Jitsu. I’ve always found that when I practice other styles, I usually end up learning more about my own core style (Shotokan Karate). Do you find that you learn more about your core style of Jiu Jitsu, or do you find some of them completely different?
LO’C: I’m like you. I’ve found takeaways in all the different other arts I’ve studied that helped me improve in my own style. There is so much to learn from all the arts. Why limit yourself only to what is taught in your own style?
CW: Please list the other styles that you’ve practiced and tell us which of them have had the most influence on you? Have you taken aspects of some of those other styles back into your Can Ryu Jiu Jitsu teaching?
LO’C: Shotokan Karate, boxing, MMA, Aikido, Taichi, Taekwondo/Hapkido, Wushu, several other styles of Jiu-jitsu. These are only the ones that I studies for 6 months or longer, most of them I trained in for at least 1 or more years.
CW: Having practiced so many different styles, what is it about Can Ryu Jiu Jitsu that particularly appealed to you to keep it as your primary style for many years?
LO’C: I like Can-ryu’s self-defense emphasis. We don’t do competition and emphasize using self-defense in accord with Canadian laws. I also like that it continues to evolve as common self-defense scenarios change and evolve.
CW: You say “using self-defense in accord with Canadian laws”; how does this impact the style on a practical level?
LO’C: We emphasize using “only as much force as is necessary to nullify the situation.” We teach a wide range of techniques, from hand strikes, kicks, takedowns/throws, improvised weapons etc, but do so in context. We tend to emphasize techniques that are effective at creating opportunities to escape that aren’t likely to be lethal. We do teach some things that have that potential, but when we do, we explain that they should only be used when that level of force can be justified (i.e. when you can explain why you perceived a situation to be potentially lethal to you).
CW: As part of your involvement with Professor Georges Sylvain’s (founder of the Can-Ryu Jiu Jitsu), I understand that you were one of the main demonstration models in several of his training videos including The Persuader Key Holder Self-Defense System, Police Pressure Point Techniques and The Use & Application of Pepper Spray Against Dogs. Can you tell us how this came about and what the experience meant to you?
LO’C: When Professor Sylvain came out of retirement in the martial arts world, he did so through my Sensei’s dojo. When he first started teaching black belt classes at our dojo, he took a special shine to me, telling me on a number of occasions that I was talented. He even once told me that he thought I had the potential to be a master. That had a profound effect on me. When he started producing his videos, he asked me to be one of the main demonstration models, which was a great honour for me. It was an awesome experience to learn directly from him and I remember the experiences fondly.
CW: You also lived in Japan for 3 years where you started your own club teaching both Japanese and other foreigners. That must have been a great experience going to the homeland of Jiu Jitsu and actually teaching it to the Japanese themselves. Please tell us about this experience, how it came about and what it meant to you personally?
LO’C: Honestly, I started teaching there because I missed my own style. I hadn’t planned to start a club. I started out training in a local Aikido club. It wasn’t the greatest experience. I wasn’t treated the greatest being a foreigner with previous experience and a woman to boot. They didn’t really take me seriously. Though later, after I started my own class, they started watching from the sidelines appreciatively. They even came over before classes and offered to lend me books. Weird how they changed their tune after I left them. Oh well. I didn’t have many Japanese students, only a couple, but they were both martial artists who had trained in other styles. One of them held a 3rd degree black belt in Judo and seemed to like how we applied our training in a more self-defense context. He was a great student. He barely spoke any English and was really shy, but always worked really hard and trained seriously. There were lots of ups and downs when I taught in Japan, but I’m glad I did it. It kept me developing in my style and I got to give back to my local community through my teaching.
CW: Having reached a very high grade, passed on your knowledge and skill to so many others and authored 2 books, what would you regard as your greatest achievement within martial arts?
LO’C: Wow, that’s a tough one to answer. I would say my greatest achievement was creating and maintaining a community through my dojo in which people of all ages and backgrounds feel comfortable coming together for their own self-development. I also liked that I have been able to extend that community through involvement in social media and my writing. Giving back to the world in a positive way has always been important to me.
CW: Most senior grade martial artists are men. Have you had any resistance to your teachings or writings based on gender, or has it been a mainly positive response?
LO’C: For the most part, my experiences have been mainly positive. I’ve never had anyone resist my teachings directly to me because I’m a woman. That being said, I’ve sometimes felt like senior martial arts instructors have a tendency to be a bit of a “boys club” at times. They aren’t trying to make me feel unwelcome or anything, they just don’t always know exactly how to treat me in social situations. I think they tend to be a bit more formal around me than with other men of the same rank and experience. I try not to take it personally because I know they don’t mean me any offense. It’s a by-product of being in the minority, gender-wise.
CW: Generally speaking, women sometimes face different threats to men. Do you feel that women should train differently to men? If so please explain how?
LO’C: Not really. They just need to understand how best to use their body to achieve the same results as men. They often have to have better technique in order to apply moves on bigger/stronger individuals. For the most part, martial arts techniques are most effective when you use your energy efficiently by emphasizing universal principles such as body mechanics, balance breaking, distance & timing, etc. Everyone should be aiming to use these, regardless of size or strength because everyone wants to know that their moves will work when the chips are down and they are dealing with an attacker that has the size/strength advantage.
CW: Apart from the practical side of realistic self defence, you also seem to be interested in spiritual development as well. What are your main influences here and what part have martial arts played in your spiritual journey?
LO’C: The martial arts have taught me to aim to be fully present in whatever I do, to accept situations as they are, but also to try and make the most of them, however I can. I wouldn’t say that I subscribe to any formal spiritual philosophy, but I’ve always appreciated Zen and Taoist philosophy. I believe that everyone should develop their own sense of spirituality (by spirituality, I mean how one views their connection with the world around them)..
CW: The spiritual side can be difficult for many to understand, especially beginners (who usually just look to the physical self defence skills). Do you try to teach the spiritual side to your students (if so, how)? Or do you mainly focus on the practical side and wait them to work it out for themselves?
LO’C: I mainly focus on the practical side and let students get whatever they want to out of their own training. I don’t believe in trying to press my spiritual beliefs on anyone else, but I am happy to share if asked. I also provide a library at my dojo that contains many spiritual and philosophical books as well as martial arts books. If people want to explore spirituality within the context of the martial arts, they have every opportunity to do so, but it’s something they must initiate on their own.
CW: You don’t seem to have much interest in sport martial arts (which I personally can fully relate to). Have you ever taken part in competitions? Do you feel that sport adds or detracts from martial arts training?
LO’C: I have dabbled a little, having done a few competitions to see what it was like. At one point, I was training to be an MMA fighter with every intention of going into the ring. I had started doing MMA because I wanted to learn what they learned so I can teach my students how to handle that sort of attacker. I trained really hard for a number of months, but my trainer/promoter weren’t honest with me and kept telling me he had fights arranged (for which I trained up), then telling me it fell through at the last minute. I found out later that he had never actually gotten those fights for me and I was really put off. I lost interest after that.
I don’t think sport necessarily detracts from training. It depends on how you do it. If you only practice with sport in mind, never considering how your techniques might need to be adapted in self-defense situations, then yes, it would certainly detract from one’s martial arts training IF your purpose is to learn self-defense. If sport is your reason for training, then obviously it wouldn’t detract.
CW: I’m also very interested in your own personal blog www.Giver365.com. Can you tell us what that is about and what inspired you to start it up?
LO’C: Giv’er 365 is my way of exploring how I serve the world around me. I was inspired to start it up because I was doing a lot of thinking about my connection to the world around me and wanted to find more ways I could give back and perhaps inspire others to do the same.
CW: Are you a full time professional martial arts teacher/writer or do you just do it part time?
LO’C: I would say I do it half-time. I do work in the movies for the other half, mostly doing work as a movie extra, with the odd bit of stunt work here and there.
CW: In what ways does your martial art training impact on other areas of your life outside of the Dojo?
LO’C: The dojo has given me a community that I value greatly. Most of my friends have come out of my dojo, so my social life often revolves around my students. I also feel that my martial arts training has helped me develop my sense of connection with the world, and has even been a primary influence on my personal values.
CW: Looking at your first book, Weapons Of Opportunity, please tell about this, what motivated you to write this book and how well has it been received?
LO’C: I wrote that book because I was working in a full-time marketing job at the time that didn’t have enough work for me to actually work full time. Since I had to be there at my computer all day, I preferred to find something productive to do rather than sit there surfing the Internet. I hadn’t even started my dojo yet either, but I was missing my connection with Can-ryu. So I started writing that book as a series of short stories and anecdotes from my early years of martial arts training. I self-published the book, having not had any luck finding a publisher to back the work of an unknown author’s personal memoirs. Those who bought it and read it though, seemed to enjoy it. I got a lot of positive feedback from it. I’ve sold out of the printed copies, but a new digital version will be available soon.
CW: Your second book, When The Fight Goes To The Ground: Jiu Jitsu Strategies And Tactics For Self Defenseis coming out soon. When is the release date and what inspired you to write about this specific subject? Although it is early days yet, have you had any response or feedback about it?
LO’C: The official release date is Feb. 12, 2013. I was actually approached directly by Tuttle Publishing. Their martial arts acquisitions representative read my blog and liked my writing, asking me if I would be interested in submitting a proposal for a technical book/DVD format they were looking to develop. I had wanted to write a book about practical ground defense that got away from the whole submission grappling arena, focusing more on using techniques to get off the ground as quickly and efficiently as possible. I never pursued it though because I was told by a martial arts instructor/author mentor of mine that without being a well-known MMA fighter or something, I was unlikely to ever get a publisher to back it. Goes to show you that you shouldn’t always believe what you’re told. I haven’t really had any feedback about the book yet since it’s not out, but I have taught many of the techniques at seminars and at my own dojo and the techniques have always been well received.
CW: Many styles (like my own Karate) emphasis striking and do not always do much groundwork. Will this book to be of much value to martial artists of other styles to help them fill a possible gap in their own training?
LO’C: With the popularity of BJJ and MMA, many people are learning ground related skills, whether it’s formally through schools, or just from watching UFC and YouTube. With this knowledge becoming so widespread, it is well worth it to learn a base of ground defense if one’s purpose is to learn martial arts for self-defense. Traditional martial artists from stand-up striking styles don’t necessarily want to give up their style just to learn that specific an element of self-defense. And even if they did resort to training in BJJ or MMA, these styles are usually taught in a competitive context, leaving out many strategies and tactics that better serve one’s goals in street self-defense.
My book addresses the significant differences in approach between competition ground fighting and street defense ground fighting. It would teach competitive grapplers skills, concepts and techniques they can combine with their training for application in self-defense scenarios. It also offers traditional stand-up martial artists a simple, effective system of ground defense they can combine with their stand-up defensive skills.
CW: Outside of your own dojo, do you teach many seminars? If so, is it usually just within the Can Ryu Jiu Jitsu association, or do you teach martial artists of other styles? And how far afield have you journeyed to teach?
LO’C: Yes, I teach seminars outside my own dojo. I teach at the Canadian Jiu-jitsu Union Winter and Summer Camps every year. I also teach as a guest at other dojos for students of different martial arts styles. I have even taught self-defense/Jiu-jitsu seminars for corporate clients and private groups. So far, the farthest I’ve travelled to teach has been to Ontario, but this year I have plans to teach in the US, in addition to seminar plans in various locations throughout Canada.
CW: What are your future plans with your martial arts career? If anybody would like to book you for a seminar, how should they contact you and how far are you prepared to travel?
LO’C: My plan is to continue teaching and training (I still train at other dojos as well as my own dojo) to keep learning and improving on what I do in the martial arts. I also intend to write another martial arts book, one that addresses personal development in the martial arts.
If people are interested in booking me for a seminar, they can contact me through my dojo’s website, Pacific Wave Jiu-jitsu. I am willing to travel pretty much anywhere as long as we can come to an arrangement that makes it worthwhile for both me and the host.
CW: Lori, I’d like to wish you success with both your teaching and writing careers. I look forward to reading your new book When The Fight Goes To The Ground and would like to thank you for taking the time out to do this interview with me. Thank you very much.
Anybody interested in pre-ordering Lori’s new book or purchsing the old one, can do so from Amazon (see below).