Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Independent and Environmental Training

There are two indispensable educational requirements for the serious student's lifelong investigation of the martial arts: The first is consistent, hands-on direction from a qualified and experienced instructor, and the second is reliable access to space appropriate to the study at hand. There is absolutely no substitute for these two components, and if either is lacking, potential declines. Unsafe and unsanitary surroundings can only speckle development with unpredictable periods of downtime, and even a dedicated and effortful plunge into the world of instructional video and martial literature will fail to raise aptitude beyond mediocrity, no matter how perspicuous or comprehensive the material, because martial skill is functionally transmitted via human interaction. That being said, significant insight may be gleaned when the serious student supplements his or her education outside the norm of structured class with independent experimentation and/or training in alternate environments. 

The advantage of independent training lies the absence of distraction. It is immersion into a setting where one can explore the sequential or random permutations of form without the preoccupation of external interference. Solo, this is accomplished within a mental construct — ideas and gambits shape the mind in response to imaginary opponents or obstacles, and consequently, the body changes to adapt. It is a kind of mental-physical brainstorming that is no different than dance regulated by martial principles. The goal, then, is to test these ideas later during human interaction and study how they work. Those that do not should be tossed to the wind; those that do should be explored and refined, in order to personalize the martial art and make it one's own.  

Such an exercise is obviously ideal for Internal Chinese Martial Arts like Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gua Chang, or external striking martial arts like Karate-do or Tae Kwon Do, but it is no less useful for grappling martial arts like Judo and Jujutsu provided the practitioner keeps in mind the exercise is a study of form. Form is essentially the intentional manipulation of a body to achieve a specific goal. While it is probably impossible to learn a technique such as seoi nage without actually throwing another human being, it is not so difficult to shadow the form and speculate how the exchange might transform based on an opponent's measures to struggle or evade.

The advantage of environmental training is that it introduces external complications normally absent within the traditional martial arts school. At the dojang, Tae Kwon do students are fortunate to train on flat and even flooring; at the dojo, judoka are fortunate to grapple on soft mats devoid of gravel and asphalt. It is a fact that the game evolves dramatically when beset with precarious footing and other physical obstruction. It is not so easy for iadioka or kenjutsuka to swing a sword when ceilings are low, and students of Hsing-I Chuan may find rooting significantly less manageable upon icy roads or dry sand. One's capacity to operate in the heat and the cold are further factors to consider, in conjunction with the fact that clothing and attire will adjust to match the temperature. 

Such environmental complexities should be explored, because they amplify deficiencies in the martial artist's freedom to efficiently adapt his or her form -- and that is essentially the heart of the martial arts, whether one's primary focus is self defense or self improvement. As Miyamoto Mushashi often said, "You must investigate this throughly."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Go Buy Some Pepper Spray

Apart from teaching traditional martial arts at the Japanese Martial Arts Center in Ann Arbor, and a Mixed Martial Arts class at Dan Vigil's Academy of Tae Kwon Do in Northville, I periodically travel around the state of Michigan to offer private seminars in self defense. At all of these, the first thing I do is recommend Pepper Spray.

The stuff is good. It is very easy to use, inexpensive, and especially effective. This I can vouch from personal experience.

See, back in the day, I trained at a dojo in East Lansing, Michigan. My sensei at the time sold martial arts equipment out of the school: dogi, katana, various Okinawan Kobudo weapons (like tonfa, nunchacku, bo, that sort of thing), along with other such neat martial arts gear. Among the paraphernalia was pepper spray. 

So there was this guy, who we'll call, I dunno, let's say "Dave." One day, Dave said something along the lines of, "Hey Sensei, I'd like to be pepper sprayed." And he said this right next me, right in front of Sensei. In retrospect, I am certain this masochistic interest spawned from genuine youthful stupidity, but at the time it seemed a blatant declaration of manliness, and there was no way in hell I was going to let him revel in all the glory. So I put him in his place by saying something like, "Oh yeah? Well, I want to be pepper sprayed, too."

Sensei had no problem with this. In fact, I got the feeling he thought it was a good idea. We met some time later at his house in the country, and bunch of fellow judo and aiki jujutsu students tagged along to enjoy the show. 

It goes down like this: 

I try to insist that I'm going first, but Dave is like, no way man, this was my idea, back off. All right, fine. 

So Sensei gives him a long, satisfying blast. Dave goes down clawing his eyes in a flurry of waffling howls, and is none too happy, let me tell you. Meanwhile, the sounds emanating from the spectating ring of martial artists and dojo people are not those of concern, but hilarity. This is the point where my manliness retrogrades to preadolescence, and I start scoping the landscape for imminent camouflage. Unfortunately, we're in an open field, and Dave is calling attention to my person by paradoxically yelling, "Don't do it! Don't do it!" and "Now it's your turn!" 

Indeed it was. 

I must report: Pepper Spray ƒµ©%|π§ hurts. A lot. Your eyes feel like they've been fraternized with a handful of rusty caltrops, and for the first few minutes, you can't even open them. You can pry back your eyelids with your fingers if you want, but all you're going to see is pain, and pain is remarkably blurry. To make matters worse, this ridiculous ordeal transpired during the relentless heat of summer, and us clever young boys, in an effort to forestall an extra load of laundry, abandoned our shirts to receive the spray. Thus the tenacious liquid voyaged from our faces, down our necks, and on to our chests and bellies, leaving mean red splotches of irritated skin that burned like beestings in the sunlight. And it took a long time to stop hurting. 

In conclusion: If you want a safe, legal, effective, inexpensive, and easy means to defend yourself, go buy some pepper spray. It will be worth it. 

And if you happen to see Dave strolling along the sidewalk, spike him squarely in the eyes with a thick stream of spray as punishment for making me challenge his call.