Interview With Rob Jones, 5th Dan Karate & Founder Of Zenshin Dojo

Rob Jones & wife Kate
Rob Jones with his wife Kate

I first met Rob Jones round abut 2009 (I can’t remember the exact date/year). I’d been out training for number of years due to various domestic reasons and looking to get back into it. With the club that I’d previously been training with closed, I tried a couple of clubs in my area. During that search, I met Rob Jones and his club, Zenshin Dojo.

I didn’t end up training with them permanently as I was looking for a Shotokan club and Zenshin Dojo are Shotokai based. I’ve nothing against any other style of Karate and believe in learning from others; I just wanted to continue with my own primary style which was Shotokan.

However, I found both Rob and his members at Zenshin Dojo to be an extremely friendly group and very good at what they do. We’ve kept in touch over the years, I’ve been included in several of their functions both training seminars and social and I’ve even been invited to give feedback on one his students going for her 3rd Dan.

Rob has a great depth of knowledge on all facets of Karate, a very open mind to learning from any viable source, a deep understanding of the philosophical aspects of martial arts (often overlooked) and is a great communicator. Having been a policeman for most of working life, he also knows about real world confrontation. This combination has lead to him having one of the largest martial art schools in Bristol (one of the biggest cities in the UK).

He is also generous in nature and has always been supportive of me when I started teaching and promoting my own ideas online. He’s a guy I have a lot of respect for, so I was very pleased when he agreed to do an interview with me.

 

Charlie: Rob, was Shotokai Karate your first martial art, or did you try anything else first before settling with Shotokai?

Rob: I confess, apart from feeling in awe of Kwai Chang Caine, star of the 70’s Kung Fu TV series, I had zero interest in learning martial arts. I began because I was a community beat police officer on a rough council estate and wanted to get to know some of the local yobs… I mean young men! Several of these lads trained at the local Shotokan dojo so I joined. Therefore my first taste of martial art was through the practice of Shotokan.

Charlie: Who were your first teachers and how did they influence the young Rob Jones?

Rob Jones demonstrating a take down

Rob: I can’t remember the name of the Shotokan “sensei” I met. But my first real teacher was a man called Adrian Baker (see below) and also Mitsuske Harada sensei. Both brought wisdom and martial philosophy to my table and opened my eyes to what could be achieved and the wider context.

It’s perhaps worth noting that Mitsuske Harada sensei considers himself to be a teacher of orthodox Shotokan.

Charlie: Although you’ve adapted along the way, is it fair to say that Shotokai is still at the base of what you teach with other influences added on? And what was it about Shotokai that appealed to you to want to commit so much of your martial arts journey to it?

Rob: I remember the actual moment vividly. My friend who had introduced me to Shotokan was a large man and physically strong, a 1st kyu Shotokan karate-ka. There had been some disagreements with the way our club was being run (at that time by a husband and wife combo). Consequently my 1st kyu friend had, in the course of his employment, met a man called Adrian Baker quite by chance. At the time Adrian was a 3rd dan practising under the tuition of Mitsusuke Harada sensei. My friend invited Adrian to our club one evening. During the session Adrian asked to accept my friends punch. This was not an uncommon practice within the Shotokai world. Accepting an attack is a core skill. On this occasion my friend hit Adrian, oi-zuki chudan with as much strength as he could muster. Adrian was knocked a little but there was no profound effect. Then the roles were reversed and Adrian hit my friend with a chudan oi-zuki. This time there was a profound effect as my friend struggled to breathe and fell to the floor.

Rob Jones leading senior grades in karate kata
Leading senior grades in kata

I’m not a particularly big or muscular man and neither is Adrian. However our Shotokan man was / is and I remember thinking “I want to punch like that”! And so the seed was sewn and I joined Adrian’s club.

For me I was intrigued by the explosive energy created and delivered in a “relaxed” way. I don’t want to be muscle bound, I don’t want a suit of armour, I prefer to be able to run if I can.

In my experience most can’t make the connection, or perhaps don’t understand or believe how words like, “soft” and “relaxed body” and sensitive”, fit with the common perception of “strength” and “physical power”, which I believe is why Shotokai is not as popular as the more established karate schools. The best metaphor I can quote is that of a garden hose pipe. With no water running through, it is limp and flaccid but turn a jet of water on and it becomes immensely powerful and unless focussed on a target, it can have a mind of its own.

So my journey is twofold, to remove tension and stress so that my garden hose is soft and supple and develop and create energy (high pressure water). The intriguing search for this yin and yang contrast is why it appealed and sustains my interest over nearly 40 years.

Charlie: I will confess that I have seen some of that in the Shotokan world so I know where you’re coming from.
I know from talking to you, that you longer describe yourself and your school as Shotokai, as you’ve had a number of influences from other teachers. I believe the main non-Shotokai influences comes from Patrick McCarthy and his Koryu Uchindi. Can you tell us how this come about and how it has influenced your approach to teaching and training?

Rob Jones with Takashi Egami
Rob with Mr Takashi Egami eldest son of Master Egami at the graveside of his late father

Rob: Actually I have two major influences. The first, are the Japanese Yutenkai group. Their seniors, many of whom I am lucky enough to call friends, were all students of Shigeru Egami sensei, a man probably known to most Shotokan scholars as a key student of Funakoshi sensei.

25 years ago there was significant political and practice differences between many very senior members of the Shotokai and the Shotokai Hombu dojo in Tokyo, resulting in the formation of the Yuten (Egami pen name) kai. It is out of respect for the Yuten-kai that I no longer use the term Shoto-kai.

I first met them 15 years ago through a mutual friend in Italy. Since that time I have practised in Japan, Italy and here in UK with Yutenkai masters and 5th dan instructors. One 5th dan master in particular Isao Ariga sensei was probably the man I admired the most. If I had a role model it would be him. Sadly he has passed away and faced a premature death with immense dignity and courage. I remain in contact with his widow and make a point of paying my respects to his memory when in Japan.

Rob Jones with Patrick McCarthy
With Patrick McCarthy, founder of Koryu-Uchinadi

I was also introduced to McCarthy Hanshi through another Italian friend. On our first meeting we enjoyed good times both on and off the dojo and I am also honoured to call Hanshi my friend. I try to meet with him at least once a year either in UK or more often, in Italy. He’s an impressive man whose karate knowledge and experience is as deep and extensive as any. I like what he does and the explanations underpinning them, and have adopted some of his practices into the syllabus of my group. I’m also impressed by the manner he conducts himself and the way he leads and manages a worldwide karate movement with a huge following.

Charlie: Are there any other teachers who have had an influence on you and your approach to martial arts? And if so, what were those influences?

Rob: My personal practice and philosophy is also influenced by the two most impressive martial artists I have ever had the good fortune to practice with and be taught by, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang and his student Karel Koskuba. Both men, but particularly Karel, are understated and unbelievably inspiring. Their skill is matched only by their humility and willingness to give their time to others.

Finally I am fond of Iain Abernethy. His karate knowledge and application is great but moreover I am drawn to him as a man. I feel he and I are, in many ways, more similar than it appears on the surface.

Charlie: Yes, I’ve been to some of the Zenshin Dojo seminars with Iain Abernethy. As well as being a great Karateka, he is so approachable and down to earth. Having absorbed these influences, how would you describe your teaching today and what makes you unique from most others?

Rob: I was a front-line police officer and detective for 32 years. I have formed opinions based upon those experiences. People seem reluctant to acknowledge but the fact is the chances of encountering personal physical violence, for the majority of people, is very low. Of course some people do sadly fall victim, but if you remove what Iain Abernethy refers to as consensual fighting i.e. usually young men brawling; people who become vulnerable through the effects of excess alcohol, and remove domestic violence victims from the equation, you’re left with a large portion of the population. These people are unlikely to ever find themselves facing violence and therefore martial art appears to offer little value because they don’t feel in need of “self defence”.

Zenshin dojo focuses on defence from self, good, natural posture, efficient use of the body structure and encouraging all manner of skills, abilities, qualities and behaviours that are valuable in everyday life and transferrable to modern living. It’s a far more holistic approach to well being.

Learning how to stay calm under pressure, non reliance on power and domination, sensitivity, discipline and motivation are all key elements.

Of course I teach technique, kata application etc, but these do not really interest me as much as time spent finding ways to improve and develop the yin and yang contrast, I mentioned earlier

I have “used” my karate training several times throughout my police career but in a way people never expect or truly understand.

Charlie: I read on one of your websites once, (though I can’t find it now) that you are sometimes referred to as “the friendly Sensie”. I title that you seemed a little bit embarrassed about. Having trained with you and your club a couple of times, I can say that’s a fair description and that your whole club has a well ingrained ethos of friendliness to others.
With so many other martial arts classes being very formal and almost militaristic in format, was this a deliberate approach by you, or just your own natural personality shining through?

Members of Zenshin Dojo having fun in the snow
Rob, front left in a relaxed (but cold) environment with Zenshin Dojo black belts

Rob: Yes. I have adult teaching qualifications to degree level and one thing accepted as fact in post compulsory education teaching is adults learn best
a) in a relaxed environment;
b) adults don’t appreciate their behaviour being judged,
c) adults learn best by problem solving.
It’s my belief that the formal militaristic classes do not and will not attract the majority of adults. Of course they will appeal to some but the appeal of that kind of training will tend to attract younger people into the dojo, although I appreciate there are always exceptions and it’s easy to be too simplistic.

I’ve spent my entire 32 year police career employed within a quasi military, certainly disciplined and hierarchal organisation. In my experience, the best “leaders” are those who support, value and guide rather than barking commands. Encouraging people to do difficult challenging things because they want to, not because they are compiling with an order!

The instructor at the Shotokan club I first attended was the formal, militaristic type, as a young novice I once asked him why it was important to perform a particular exercise. “Because I said so” he bellowed. I did what he asked but lost immediate respect for him and his teaching. Others may like that style, I did not!

Rob Jones lifted up by 2 ladies dressed as Ninjas
Every now and then Rob gets attacked by Ninjas. But he seems quite relaxed about it!

I end this answer by controversially stating I’m English, not Japanese and I have no desire to be Japanese despite visiting the country several times and having numerous Japanese friends whom I care deeply about. I like their culture and traditions, but I’m not Japanese. Of course we have some (although not much) formality and we acknowledge the heritage of karate through the teachings of Funakoshi sensei etc, but I sense many clubs are “formal” for “Formal” sake. There is a romantic narrative of the Samurai, Shogun, bushido and all that goes with it, I know this is immensely appealing, but not to me.

Charlie: I agree entirely and have quite a similar approach myself. Some people who come to me from other clubs sometimes find it strange at first, but I think they prefer it after a while!
With many martial arts available today and traditional martial arts losing ground to the likes of MMA; your school, Zenshin Dojo, has 6 branches and over 100 members. This is obviously a great testimony to your teaching methods and leadership. How long has the school been running, and how long did it take to build up to this level?

Rob: I started the club in 1992; it took nearly a decade to grow to a number which could financially support hall payments etc. We’ve been members of various national and international organisations but sadly, in the end, political manoeuvring and the thirst for power by some, always seems to spoil the party and in 2010, I decided to become an independent club, free to practice what and how I wanted and more importantly be guided by who I chose to be guided and influenced by.

Since that time we have grown from strength to strength and now have 120 regularly practising adult members.

I’m not sure if I’m unique, but I certainly don’t feel akin to the major karate styles.

Charlie: With the rise of sport martial arts (MMA) and reality based martial arts (like Krav Maga), what you see as the future for the traditional martial arts? And what do you think traditional martial arts can offer better than any other vehicle?

Rob: I don’t feel qualified to predict the future of “traditional” martial arts but believe the answer doesn’t lie in offering self defence practice or training. Referring to nature, Charles Darwin said “the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself”.

Rob Jones demonstrating a Karate throw

What can martial arts offer better than any other vehicle? A lot, it can improve health, fitness (however described), teach mindfulness, the value of meditation. It can provide a meaningful hobby a past time which has a social element. The physicality of martial arts has a way of processing stress (although other exercise can also achieve this). For me the overriding benefit lies in the philosophy. It’s a metaphor for life. In the end (and the more mature you are), you realise the destination is not as important as the journey. This is what non sport martial arts offer better than any other activity.

Charlie: Well said. I believe that Zenshin Dojo has a club katana, which is used for symbolic and ceremonial purposes. Can you tell us about that please?

Rob: The Zenshin dojo katana, was bought on behalf of the club from a dealer in April 2004. It represents a metaphor for the qualities required to achieve dan grade and therefore is not intended to be interpreted in the context of the samurai, combat, or “budo” arts.

The sword itself can be perceived as an object of grace and beauty, and yet it retains the ability to cause harm and injury. Like our art, it relies upon the integrity of the owner to use it without malice; honestly and honourably. The blade, forged by a craftsman for countless hours, represents the labour; time, care and endeavour required to progress through the kyu grades thus demonstrating there are no short cuts to “forging” both sound character and good technique. The Samurai was never seen without the katana and so should this be for karate. Recognising its value in all aspects of everyday life is what differentiates karate from other forms of physical activity.

The Zenshin dojo katana blade edge (ha), is sharp and remains hidden, sheathed in a plain undecorated scabbard (saya) it’s exposed only on rare occasions thus signifying that, like the karate ka, beneath the unpretentious façade exists a “cutting edge” capable of significant impact.

Kneeling before the Zenshin Dojo katana
Rob Jones with the Zenshin Dojo katana

The primary occasion for exposure of the Zenshin dojo katana blade is the acceptance of a new member into the “Yudansha-kai”.

The age of the weapon represents “history”, “a past” metaphoric of experience. As a genuine antique it represents “an authentic article” and is thus symbolic of the meaningful nature of dan grade achievement and Yudansha. More decorative swords can be purchased. To the untrained eye they are pleasing and impressive; however they lack that certain something necessary to be “the real deal”

Charlie: I like that, there are some great analogies there.
Zenshin Dojo is not just a Karate School, it’s a community in which I’ve been privileged enough to have been included a few times. What do you consider to be the main factors behind building such a successful school and community?

Members of Zenshin Dojo karate club
Some of the members of Zenshin Dojo. A happy bunch!

Rob: If you visit our website the first words you’ll see are “People Centric Karate”. I believe this is the difference between a club or organisation and a community. In a nutshell people (members) are THE most important element and considerably more important than the actual karate itself. This is profoundly different to most other clubs and groups I come across. Valuing a person means much more than saying “well done” or congratulations.

Formal dinner for Zenshin Dojo black belts
Zenshin Dojo Dan grades out for a formal dinner. I was honoured to have joined them that evening

Charlie: Well it’s certainly worked. Many teachers with such a big school would have gone professional and “lived the dream”! Yet part of your ethos is that Zenshin Dojo should be a non-profit making organisation. Did you ever and any point consider giving up the day-job and going professional?

Rob: Never. The day I put profit before people and integrity, will be the day I hang up my belt.

Charlie: You have quite a few international connections and as I understand it; sometimes you travel as a club to visit and train with them, sometimes you host them when they come to you.
Would you like to tell us about some of these connections and the places you’ve all been to?

Training Karate on the beach
Training on the beaches of Italy. It’s a tough life!

Rob: Before my young children were born I was free and able to travel extensively across Europe, Finland, Canada and Japan even practising karate on the South Atlantic island of St Helena and in Bangladesh. I value those I have met and do my best to remain in contact with them but my opportunity and time now, is more limited.

We do invite friends to visit and have enjoyed weekends of practice at Zenshin dojo with French, Portuguese, Canadian, Italian and of course Japanese instructors. And have hosted two International Gasshuku. But I’m sure your other readers will have similar experiences. I don’t feel I have had a particularly impressive journey, perhaps a lucky one, but not that much different from others.

Rob Jones at the grave of Gichin Funakoshi
In Japan at the grave of Gichin Funakoshi

Charlie: Zenshin Dojo also regularly donates quite substantial sums of money to charity, some of then being martial arts based. Can you tell us about some of those charities, what they do and why they were important to you?

Rob: As a non profit making group we feel it’s important to support charities where ever possible. Twenty years ago we focussed on local, smaller Bristol based community charities, later we moved to raise funds for the IKKAIDO organisation a group engaged in tremendous work bringing martial arts to the disabled under the guidance of Ray Sweeney. More recently we have concentrated our efforts in support of Fairfight a small charity dedicated to empowering underprivileged children in India. More specifically we help fund Mary Stevens an impressive karate ka from Oxford as she gives her time and energy helping the children in person.

Why do we do it? Why is it important? Because it is.

Charlie: Your wife Kate, also a senior grade Karateka, runs the children’s section with KEBBA (Kate Easdale Black Belt Academy). Apart from teaching what is age appropriate, is KEBBA run pretty much in parallel with Zenshin Dojo? Are Zenshin Dojo and KEBBA separate organisations or are they fully integrated?

Rob: Kate’s junior club KEBBA was established in 1999 and has proved to be very successful with a current membership in the region of 150 children. I was a 2nd dan in 1993 when Kate began her karate journey in my club. Therefore, naturally her karate and my karate are as one, but KEBBA is an entirely separate and distinct organisation There is no integration with Zenshin dojo beyond the fact parents sometimes join Zenshin dojo and occasionally one of our seniors will help Kate run a class.

Charlie: Are any of your own children interested in following on in yours and Kate’s footsteps?

Rob Jones & family
Team Jones!

Rob: Sadly not, only one of our 7 year old triplets does practice, the other 3 prefer their tablets to a gi! My older daughter, now an adult living in London did grade to 2nd kyu but then flew the nest.

Charlie: You also have a ladies only section, which is quite rare these days. How did this come about, and does it make much difference to the ladies to have their own separate section? Some people say that if woman want to learn to defend themselves against men, they should train with men; how would you answer this?

Rob: I find the argument “if woman want to learn to defend themselves against men, they should train with men” one dimensional and superficial. We’re back to this “self defence” question again.

The first thing to acknowledge is not all women (or men ) are looking for “self defence” classes and I refer you to my answer of question 6. Many people join for, regular exercise, to lose weight, for fun, to meet new people with similar interests etc etc.

If you view karate practice only through the prism of “self defence” then, in my humble opinion, it loses its appeal to, and alienates, a large section of the adult population. I believe regular practice offers profound benefits to the average person and therefore should be available and attractive to all.

What about Muslim ladies? We are lucky to count several as members. Adherence to their faith means they are not free to touch another man. Should karate not offer them somewhere to exercise, thrive, grow and develop?

In my experience many ladies feel intimidated and lack confidence. If I want to improve their confidence then the first thing I need to do is get them through the door. I respectfully suggest the usual kind of karate advertising emphasising macho qualities of power, strength, speed, high kicks etc will not appeal to the average, slightly overweight 38 year old mum who has not exercised since leaving school. So what can karate offer her? Why learn karate? Because with help, support and guidance, this hypothetical lady can overcome physical challenges which she would never have dreamed herself capable of doing and by making progress her confidence and self esteem all improve.

The ladies group is very popular. They seem to thrive in a mutually supportive environment where they work out without fear of judgement or feelings of inadequacy.

To answer your question directly, our policy is always based upon pace and lead, in other words we gently introduce the ladies to a comfortable karate environment but encourage them to integrate with the men, when they are ready.

Charlie: I will be honest, it never occurred to me about the Muslim ladies not being allowed to touch a man. It’s a very good point and like you I do believe that Karate should be inclusive.
We talked once about internal power, utilising the fascial systems in the body (rather than using chi/ki energy as so many others talk about). I personally believe that chi/ki (internal energy) is good for health and well being, but is quite different to the internal power used in martial arts. What is your understanding on the subject, how important do you think it is to martial arts and who was your primary teacher(s)?

Rob: For me the engagement of the fascia is of paramount importance and it is present in every aspect of my karate. The term Zenshin, translates to whole body and the fascia is the physical manifestation of “whole body”. The Yutenkai practices all engage fascia and I believe Harada sensei also recognised its value but somehow it was lost in translation to his students.

15 years ago I studied qigong on an intensive three year instructor’s programme and it completely opened my eyes to “qi”. I also began shiatsu training which incorporated traditional Chinese medicine until my children came along and I had to stop!

In my experience many Europeans have a very poor understanding of “qi” when compared to the Chinese. There are all kinds of “qi”, it’s not a mystical, mythical thing it’s real but not in the way some martial arts guru’s or “Masters” would have us believe. In the context of your question we’re back to the water and garden hose analogy again. It’s a huge subject and one which I find fascinating but too big to convey here.

Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang is the only person I have ever seen, in person, on TV or the internet, who has developed formidable internal power, it’s real and mind blowing but that level of skill and understanding is beyond me and I humbly suggest many others. Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang’s student Karel Koskuba was my teacher but even Karel was unable to replicate Chen’s ability.

If I had my life over again I would study Yiquan, an internal martial art which blows my mind but takes decades of dedicated to offer any meaningful value in terms of self defence. A Shotokai 5th dan friend with a dojo in Paris has combined his karate with Yiquan training and he’s very impressive.

Charlie: You’ve attained your 5th Dan, which (correct me if I’m wrong) I believe is the highest grade in Shotokai Karate. You’ve also trained a lot of people up to black belt, quite a few up to senior black belt and have probably the largest martial arts school in Bristol (which is quite big). That’s a number of great achievements for anybody. But what do you personally regard as your single proudest moment in your Karate career?

Rob Jones demonstrating a hold on the floor

Rob: Hosting an international Gasshuku in Bristol attended by 140+ persons from11 different countries. The bringing together of so many friends under one roof was truly magical.

Charlie: You obviously have a lot of knowledge from a lot of different sources, have you ever considered teaching seminars outside of the Zenshin Dojo schools?

Rob: No. To be honest I don’t think my views and practice methods would have much appeal in the conventional karate community.

Charlie: I think you might be surprised, there are a lot of people out there searching for answers and not finding them in their own associations. I know, I’ve been there!
And probably the most important question of all, what do you feel that spending most of your life in Karate has given you as a person? What differences has it made to your life spiritually, intellectually, health, friendships and in terms of personal development?

Rob: I’m defined by karate philosophy, it’s provided me with a “path” to follow, an understanding of me and an appreciation of others. It’s also helped me with relationships both personal, professional and incidental. And finally exercise, a “match fitness” which only comes with regular practice not to be confused with athletic prowess, stamina or flexibility.

Charlie: What are your plans for your own future training? Are they any big names you haven’t trained with yet who you’d like to; and what direction do you see Zenshin Dojo going in?

Rob: I’m happy where I am in my journey, I continue to enjoy coaching, teaching and practising basics also interacting with Koryu Uchinadi and Yutenkai practitioners. Frankly time is precious and my children always trump any personal karate aspirations I may have.

Charlie: Fair enough, family must come first.
At some point, we all have to retire (by choice or otherwise). Do you feel that you have good people in place to take over the running of Zenshin Dojo?

Rob: This is a matter we are currently wrestling with. My goal is to sustain Zenshin dojo as a functioning entity long after my death. It’s a goal that relies on other people and a developed culture. We’re not there yet but I have some truly wonderful colleagues and together we are working hard to future proof Zenshin dojo.

Charlie: Well lets hope that’s a very long time away and knowing some of your people, I’m sure it’ll be in good hands.
If anybody would like to train with you or find out more, what is the best way for them to contact you?

Rob: I can always be contacted at robzenshindojo@gmail.com Thank you.

Charlie: And thank you too Rob, it’s been very kind of you give us your time and insights. Much appreciated.

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Bonus: Historical look at Bassai Dai, one of Karate’s most pivotal katas

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