Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Martial Arts Ukemi

Ukemi- the ability to land on the ground without getting hurt, the ability to "receive" an attack from a training partner, the ability to blend and flow a movement. As a foundation in the ten ryaku no maki section of training it is a dual skill- one we practice in every class, and one that is on the roster for daily training at home. 

The focus this past class on ukemi was building an awareness between ourselves and our training partner, and when is the moment to take ukemi- from the perspective of preventing injury. As an example, we used omote gyaku to explore the idea since it appears in many places in our training- the kihon happo, gyaku gi, and a number of kata in the jin ryaku section of training. 

In this movement, your training partner takes your wrist, and using correct taijutsu movement, locks up your body and ability to move. Through the twisting of the wrist and the arm, there is a slowing of ones ability to move as it locks the elbow, shoulder, hip, knee, and ankle of the lead foot. There is a moment, where the body entirely locks up and a moment later you are thrown over with the omote gyaku movement, done is such a way that one can't take ukemi.

When we are practicing ukemi, in that precise moment before the entire body is locked up, we use on of the break falls or rolls to land- depending on the technique and the position of the training partner. The idea is to be sensitive enough to the movement to know when to take ukemi or not. 

Done early your training partner will just change waza and take you in a different direction, done late, and you can't escape or take ukemi, done at the right moment you blend and can protect yourself from the technique.

From there you can also perform kaeshi waza or sutemi waza to capture your training partner with their own technique. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Bojutsu Training

Would you find it odd, in joining our group, to be handed a bo (6-foot stick) on day one of training? 

For many schools the use of "weapons" is reserved for black belts.

What thought process or flow behind this?

In taijtusu, there is just the martial movement of the body. The idea of different weapons, unarmed movement broken down into striking, grappling,etc. as all being different or separate is an alien concept. 

In taijutsu we only have movement of mechanics, regardless of armed vs. unarmed. 

There is also the idea of controlled chaos in training- from day one you start learning all the skills needed to navigate a situation. Of course there are basics and fundamentals to practice, a starting point, and at different levels of training as one progresses the focus will shift, but being exposed and learning everything along the way is by design- even if it is overwhelming.

Survival is survival, and awareness is KEY. Being aware of training tools, movements, situations, and what could happen with various movements- even if one can't do them right now, makes you aware of what could happen. In terms of natural capacity, we also have the ability as human beings to learn everything- how would it play out in the moment of survival if you needed a certain skill, but it was withheld from you because you are not a black belt or a certain rank in training. 

You are shown everything, it is your responsibility to to "get it".

Learning the bo, in comparison to our other historical training tools such as the sword, spear, weighted chain, etc. has very practical returns. A long stick can be found or substituted in many places- its movements can be used in a variety of situations.

From that end our training in bojutsu can be explored in the following points:

Kamae: postures and ways of holding the stick to manipulate distance and timing.

Ukemi: ways of receiving an attack with the stick.

Uchi waza: ways of striking with the stick.

Kata: traditional training forms.

Bojutsu heiho: strategy and interacting with the stick and training partners.

Building on that the bo is also useful for understanding distance and timing. At six feet in length, it can be used to understand angles of attack, ways of keeping or expanding distance, and other movement ideas which can be directly used outside of the stick. In many ways its a physical training tool to understand the unarmed movements and isolate certain training principals so they are easier to see.

From the new member of the group the stick is also used to teach coordination and timing, and is one of the KEY reasons we start them off with the stick.

There is a training exercise called bofurigata which is spinning the stick to create distance. In order to do this correctly one has to move the upper and lower part of the body at the same time and in unison. 

If the timing is "off" your knees or legs get whacked with the stick.

Very quickly one learns about the timing and unison of both the upper and lower parts of the body working together to generate power- which compliments and build on the lessons of the san shin no kata.

Grab your stick and see you in the park. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

This Is Ninjutsu

Catching the feeling of ninpo.

(Trying) to understand ninjutsu, but realizing it can only be experienced.

Struggling to put all of the pieces of training together.

A natural process of training.

Fortunately for us, and for me, the solution to training is "easy".

Just show up, train in class, work on the lessons at home each day, and trust in the bujin to guide us.

Rinse and repeat over a few years, and soon the movements themselves are powering you.

That said, when we struggle to understand outside of just experiencing the movements of budo taijutsu itself, I often find that art and pictures can convey much more vs. words.

I was asked by a friend to help explain ninjutsu to them, naturally I struggled, and due to the distance our our locations I wasn't able to share with them the physical movements of training.

But I knew a great picture that I had that captures an amazing essence of ninjutsu.

That picture is above.

Different people will see different things, all based on where they are in the moment and what they believe to be true.


Learning The Martial Arts: Taiden, Shinden, Kuden

In learning the martial arts there are two sides to the training- that which is in plain view, and that which is hidden- not because it is “secret”, but rather that is just how the transmission is set up. The teacher to student / master to disciple model is in full effect.

The first layer of understanding is called taiden- body methods and is the easiest to understand. You watch your teacher perform a movement and you copy it. They add another piece and you add another piece- most of our learning as a society is done this way- watch and mimic.

The second layer is kuden- verbal transmission which follows the taiden. Moving here opens up that, you do this to anticipate that- verbal instruction regarding the training and various movement scenarios that can only be understood once you have the base movements down as a reference.

Shinden in the final layer, and the most mysterious since one already has to have the taiden and kuden bolted down and under their belt so to speak. This is the years of experience endured by your teacher- which is a result of the years of experience of their teacher- all the way back through the history of your school/style. The finer points that can only be experienced are transmitted that way- knowledge passing from one to another in an unspoken and unexplained manner.

To put it in cruder yet easier terms to understand?

My teacher wants to transmit to me the shinden of throwing somebody so they throw me around for a bit, experiencing the lessons first hand in the moment as they actually exist, not as they would be taught in a learning environment. When the smoke settles and I get back up the shinden has been transferred to me to understand- capturing that feeling and experience in the moment of being thrown and allowing it to mature and grow in my own training. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Martial Arts Walking

Walking and the martial arts.

How do we generate power in the martial arts- which was the focus of movement for class this week. 

The idea, that when encountering another person in a martial arts situation, they are going to be bigger, faster, and stronger vs. us. How those attributes of strength, speed, and size we have limited control over for ourselves. 

Some martial arts focus on strength, speed, and size, but what about focusing on distance, timing, and rhythm which are used to counter those physical attributes, and can be used by anybody regardless of them.

Body alignment is the first focus for distance, timing, and rhythm.

We move with out feet, and they are the power behind the techniques (waza).

Working on a wrist lock (omote gyaku), both the upper and lower parts of the body are in alignment. As we take the wrist, we walk in the direction we want to take our training partner. Our feet should face and move in the same direction as the wrist lock.

Looking down at your feet as you move,are they facing in the same direction that you are walking in?

Or is one, or both feet facing in a different direction, or out of alignment as you walk?

What this means, if your feet are not moving in the same direction as your hips, is that part of the momentum that you are generating is not in alignment and is being wasted. 

Depending on how far out of alignment your feet are you could also be out of balance, or opening up weak points (kyusho) in your legs and hips. 

Taking a step back from all the stuff that looks like martial arts- punching, kicking, throws, etc. it is these little points of alignment and ways of moving the body (taijutsu), that really power the effectiveness of the techniques.  

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Everything Wrong With The Martial Arts

This past Tuesday was an interesting class studying aspects from Gyokko ryu, aspects which I was fortunate to learn in 1995- the year being important in the context of this lesson.

At the time when these movements were introduced to me they were very important- I spent a good amount of time (shu) drilling them over and over again making sure I didn't deviate on step from the form. 

Over the years in practicing, I can close my eyes and see those first times they were introduced to me.

Last Tuesday we again explores some of these forms, and for me personally everything was off. I did them well, they looked good, but my distance and timing didn't quite match my teacher's movement. 

Something was a bit out of sync.

The entire class was like this for me.

Now, sometimes in training you just have a bad class. It could be the events of the day before training have you down a bit, it could be physically related in terms of being tired or hurt. You do the best you can, but sometimes success in class is just making it to the end no matter how poorly you are moving.

Certainly lessons and expression in Fudoshin from this.

But for this class, it wasn't that, I wasn't moving poorly. 

It was only towards the end of class that I figured out why. 

I was operating under incorrect assumptions, assumptions that I should have seen, but we all make mistakes. Mistakes in the dojo are the best kind, because of the protection in the dojo, mistakes made there are not lethal.

When you are newer to training, everything is naturally new- every movement, drill, kata, philosophy. Train for a while, and you develop ways of moving and viewing things, that might not be correct for the movement in that moment.

The kata being shows, I have done before, so many times, in that when I saw it being demonstrated, I fell back on the form I knew- vs. not just assuming, but working to catch the feeling of what was being taught. 

How a slight variation in footwork, changed the distance and timing. 

How it was there the entire time, quite visible, IF I had approached the lessons from a new perceptive as if I had never seen the kata before, vs. just assuming it was the one we always do.

I've made this mistake before, we all make this mistake from time to time, so it is a good reminder when it happens. 

When shown something in training practice and drill it not stop without variation to build up the lessons of the movement. Once one has a good baseline with that, moving ahead, every time one sees it again- look at as if it is the first time you are seeing it, so none of the subtle changes (either henka or ura waza) are missed.

Or at the very least realize we are studying ninjutsu, and subtle change is always working in everything we do. 

See you on the mat. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Using Totoku Hyoushi no Kamae

There is always the concept of the visible and invisible in class, the perception of what one would see if they were just watching class off to the side, vs. training or being part of a training group.

In this way, we can openly talk about the training, and sharing ideas to help those searching for the martial arts, yet at the same time preserve many of the "secrets" of the martial arts.

Not that there are any secrets in the martial arts, secrets imply learning something and having complete enlightenment. In this way martial arts is the easiest skill and disciple to learn in the world- just show up and train, and over time everything will be understood.

In watching a class one would see various martial arts skills in practice- ukemi, striking methods, grappling methods, footwork drills, training tools, etc.

BUT there is much that happens both before and after these budo taijuts movements. As an example of this let's explore the totoku hyoushi no kamae.

This is a traditional sword posture where the blade is turned flat facing the target, as a shield, and with your body as flat as possible.

From a historical perspective it was used against shuriken- hand held darts and throwing plates- bo and hira shuriken. The sword is used to deflect the incoming object with the flat of the sword, sending it off and away from you.

One is both hiding and protecting with the sword, using it to defeat another training tool of distance, where the sword does not have a similar distance.

Outside of kenjutsu (Japanese sword), this also has movement, strategy (heiho), and philosophical applications to be found in all of our other budo taijutsu movement. It is about using the sword, but it is also knowledge above and beyond the sword.

An encounter with another person does not begin the moment they move to punch or grab you. It begins way before that, and by being aware of distance and timing, one sets themselves up with superior distance and timing before an attack.

Through training, this setting of a superior position at all times just becomes conditioned and natural to the point where it is not consciously though of, it just happens.

So, if something does happen, one is automatically in a superior position and advantage before the "martial arts" has even happened.

We are crossing the street in the above picture, and in waiting for the light to turn, where are we standing? Many of us stand as close to the edge of the crosswalk as possible, waiting for the light to turn, or for a break in traffic so we can cross.

As the cars pass, what happens if one jumps the curb, or has to swerve to avoid another card? If that happens all you have is ukemi to protect you- rolling, leaping, or side evading depending on what is happening.

Can we see totoku hyoushi no kamae?

Can we use totoku hyoushi no kamae?

While waiting to cross, what about moving away from the curb and standing with the pole and barriers in-front of you?

A car jumps the curve and it has to pass through that before hitting you. Natural objects for totoku hyoushi no kamae are everywhere. Imagine again in the picture above that we are walking on the right sidewalk and a group of people are walking behind us, perhaps closing and approaching us.

We have a gut feeling about danger- one that we should ALWAYS listen to immediately.

Can we see totoku hyoushi no kamae?

Can we use totoku hyoushi no kamae?

Right away, cross the street, using the street itself as  totoku hyoushi no kamae.

Crossing puts distance between you and the group so you can see their actions better, and it also forces them to reveal the intent they may have against you- do they also cross the street?

Do they openly shift to follow you?

...in our weekly training classes we practice strikes, throws, and all that "martial arts" stuff, but it is also these hidden actions that are in play at all times, hidden movement, that helps prevent a situation, and in the worst case scenario, give you many advantages of distance and timing before something starts.

See you on the mat!  

Monday, October 1, 2018

Bujinkan Nagare

Training in class is an organic process.

While we cover the kihon and foundations of taijutsu movement in every class- ukemi, kamae, kihon happo, san shin no kata, etc. it is the questions, perspectives, and unique talents of the people training in our group which often open up unique directions in each class based on questions that naturally arrive...

In  our movement there is this idea of flow- being able to not only move smoothly, but also to be relaxed enough to not only switch techniques, but also be able to feel how our training partner is influencing our movement so we can go with the flow of movement so to speak.

How do we develop flow was the question.

The easy answer is to just keep training.

Keep showing up for class, train as best you can, continue to practice and polish the kihon at home.

Time is a great equalizer as it advances.

That said, there are a few points we can focus on to help out.

Relaxation is the first.

The ability to move and remain relaxed.

Setting up and following a daily stretching routine that focus not only on all the joints of the body, but also specifically on the hips and legs- the center and focus of what  moves us. Add supporting exercises to increase flexibility in the hips such as walking or hiking.

Alignment is also important, making sure of the direction of your feet and where they are pointing as you move. Making sure that your feet and knees are facing in the direction of where you are moving as you move using techniques. It's hard to develop flow if you are moving in one direction with your hips, but your feet are taking you in a different direction as you move.

Keeping these two points in mind, as you drill the kihon at home, and work through the lessons in class will help you develop good flow. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Hanbo Training

All of our training tools- yai, bo, katana, are ways to explore distance based on the length of the weapon. By seeing and isolating the length of the weapon, we can understand the footwork that powers that weapon, and better isolate it in our unarmed taijtusu movements.

In this way, training with these historical tools, we are using them as methods of self-discovery for our own movement.

For the past month or so we have been exploring the Japanese sword- the distance of three feet given the length of the blade. Postures, cuts, interactions, and kata. For the fall, we are now going to switch back over to hanbo- the 3 foot stick for a bit as a way to contrast it against the sword.

Both are about three feet in length, but the difference of blade and point vs. no blade and no point make them same/different.

One of the interesting aspects of the hanbo is how it is used to not only strike, but also engage with your training partner in a variety of locks, throws, and restraints. Unlike the 6 foot stick (bo), where you want to keep your training partner at that distance, the hanbo operates, naturally, much closer. 

With the physical power of the stick behind the footwork, suddenly various locks and throws become much more challenging in terms of ukemi.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Omote Gyaku Dori: Using The Wrist To Capture The Body

One of the training drills that we explored this week in class was how the arm and shoulder locks from the gyaki gi section of the chi ryaku no maki are more than just joint locks. 

Is the aim of these waza to attack the join, or to shut down the ability for your training partner to move, and ultimately not be able to take ukemi?

Consider omote gyaku- in this waza you take your training partner's hand, and moving the wrist to the outside it causes them to fall over. Certainly there is a correct way to take the hand, and footwork to power it, but is it all in the wrist?

We explored the idea of using omote gyaku as a way to first lock the wrist, followed by the elbow, shoulder, hip, leg, and finally ankle of our training partner- which prevents their ability to move. 

Movement that could be used to try and counter your movement, or movement that could be used to take ukemi. 

This idea of using the waza of the gyaki gi as a way of locking out the entire body of our training partner, and not just the joint we start with.   

Friday, September 21, 2018

Training Outdoors

Since 2006 we have been meeting every Saturday morning as friends to practice, learn, and grow in the martial arts. These classes have, and will continue to be outside as a way to understand ninjutsu, and cultivate fudoshin.

If I divide the time that I have been studying the Bujinkan martial arts in half, we can see two unique perspectives of the training. Often in terms of our own self-discovery it is best to look big picture, and explore training over a period of time to see not only your progress, but how your understanding of the arts has changed.

For the first half of my training, much of it was in what we believe here in the West to be a "traditional " training experience- a dojo environment with a dedicated kamidana, training weapons on the wall, artwork, mats on the floor, and classes in uniform with belts. This time was very formative in my mind and was very influential in how I perceived the martial arts.

But was this how the martial arts, the Japanese arts, were traditionally studied?

What did training look like in the pre-judo era? The era before formalized school/dojo?

The second half of my training has taken place outdoors, and there have been many interesting benefits that I feel have scaled well with the first half of my training.

An example, from the perspective of ninjutsu or the application of ninpo (philosophy).

The first few year outside it was hot, cold, and a few months of nice weather.

Sometimes it rained, other times it didn't.

The weather was the weather.

At some point, I began to notice the subtle transitions of the seasons...

As the summer would wind down, when the lines of the summer and fall began to meet at the equinox, once could feel the change, yet visually it was still very much "summer".

The rays of the sun would feel different, that air would have a different taste, and the very slight first change of the leaves would be under way.

Nature, even if it was in a park setting, in an urban area, was shifting.

This both made me aware, and also again reinforced what I had been taught in that ninjutsu is not something that can be academically learned or understood- it can only be experienced and internalized.

How does one develop the skill to subtly sense a changing situation, before anybody else is even aware of it happening?

What can we first detect the hidden shift of a situation?

Impossible from an academic and intellectual standpoint.

Only by training week after week, understanding how one moves (taijutsu) and how other people move and act can we begin to see.

Add the changes and shifting of nature, as a kind of natural-visual philosophy and it begins to click together into a usable skill.

Just by training outside for a few years in nature, there are many taijutsu lessons which can not be taught in the dojo.

That said, I still prefer later spring and early fall training vs. training in the dead of winter.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

How To Prepare For Your Black Belt Test

For your black belt test we are going to explore a training syllabus to prepare you for the day of the test.

An outline based on the dozens and dozens of test I have participated in as a judge and the many that I have been responsible for giving myself.

I want to give you a sneak peek of what to expect so you can be a bit more relaxed and at ease.

Being RELAXED is the most important skill you can have, and the one you need on the day of your test. It is and will be natural to be nervous, but being nervous creates tension, and tension breaks down your movement and unbalances your mind.

Worry never worked in school when taking tests, and it certainly doesn’t work on the day of a physical movement exam.

This training outline will help you prepare and help you to relax now that you have the outline to be able to perform to the best of your martial ability.

In preparing for your test we are going to take the list of skills that you need to know- what you are going to demonstrate and perform and work on them from three levels:

ONE: Repetition

TWO: Flow

THREE: Relaxation

(Part three of this guide is going to focus on KEY points for your list of skills in more focus detail, but for now we are exploring the big picture scope of the test.)

The starting point of our test-training outline is going to be repetition. You are going to be called on to demonstrate the skills on your list, and they are going to have to be perfect- so how do we get to that perfection?

Repetition to build muscle memory and confidence doesn’t mean just going through the motions of each kata, waza, or skill you need to know.

Being able to break down each part of that skill, move by  move, bit by bit and perform each movement with correct balance, distance, and timing is what we are aiming for.

In preparing for your test at this point you have been studying the martial arts for a bit of time- perhaps a few years or more, so I feel it is safe to assume that we know how to break down a technique into its component parts.

The KEY is to be able to perform all those parts together and slowly.

Going as slow as possible is the important part of repetition drills.

For many of us, we equate “correct” with speed- the faster we perform something the more impressive it looks, the more power it has. But often when we go “fast” we not only make mistakes, but we fail to see those mistakes or how to correct them.

Practice your skills slowly so you can see and feel what is going wrong, what needs to be corrected, and what is working and moving correctly.

Finding those last minute mistakes before your test and having time to correct them is what we are aiming for.

Practice your techniques a few dozen times each training session, slowly, in an almost yoga speed like manner.

The second and next practice point is going to be developing what is called nagare in the Japanese martial arts, which means flow or fluidity.

The ability to chain one technique after another without pause, loss of balance, or noticing a break is important.

Part of your test might involve going from one set of techniques to another, or demonstrating multiple techniques in a row on the same training partner, or perhaps even an element of sparring.

Lots of stuff in quick succession.

Nagare is generated though correct footwork- by being in the right place at the right moment with your training partner so you can effortlessly flow to the next technique.

If your footwork is off, when it comes time for the next technique you might be far away, or not facing the correct direction, causing you to take an extra step to catch up- breaking the flow and smoothness of what you are looking to demonstrate and perform.

In the weeks leading up to your test review all the footwork drills in your martial arts.

Pay attention to the direction and alignment of your feet and where they are facing with regard to the technique.

Work to develop nagare, which will power the perfection of your techniques and skills that you have been working on and building through repetition.

The final part in our training syllabus is developing relaxation.

Relaxation is the capstone to good technique and nagare/flow.

If you are relaxed your body will be working to make what it has learned and performed better, while on the opposite side if there is tension it will be slower, less crisp, and not as smooth moving.

So just how do we move in a relaxed manner?

Naturally you should be stretching and warming up before each practice session, but when looking to cultivate relaxation in your movement pay extra time and attention to stretching out all the major parts of your body.

When you are limber and in a relaxed state, pick one of the skills you are going to need to demonstrate and perform it at a moderate pace for fifty or so repetitions.

After the last set, stand ready, and pause.

Take a moment to mentally review your body and make note of any places you feel tight, sore, or are a bit off in your body.

These are tension points that are not correct in your movement- either because you have done them incorrectly, returning to the first point of our syllabus, or based on the mechanics of your body you are a bit tight in that area of your body- that area is going to need some more stretching, or relaxation to limber up.

See what points as your practice are not relaxed and work on those body areas, joints, and parts over the next couple of weeks leading up to your test.

Think of these three points: repetition, nagare, and relaxation as a formula to work through for each skill, waza, or demonstration expected for your test. Work through your list taking each point through all three elements of this syllabus to help position you in a good point for your test.

Now we are going to explore some focus points in the martial arts for striking, grappling, and postures (kamae) to help guide you to perfection.

We are going to explore these three skills sets from the perspective of movement on the martial arts- what makes them “work” from a body mechanical perspective vs. a single school, style, or discipline.

My plan is to give you another diagnostic tool to explore your movement with outside of your style so you can examine how you are moving and improve it for your upcoming test.

As you practice any techniques that fall into these categories use these training points to help refine your movement: Are you doing or not doing the following.

ONE: Striking

Footwork naturally powers any striking technique, stepping through the target, putting your body behind it, using the hips to generate force, but what about your feet?

As you move to strike are they always completely on the ground as they move?

After you finish your punch or strike are both feet completely flat on the ground- or often with your lead foot are you shifting your weight forward to the balls of your feet and lifting your heel off the ground.

If you are doing this, you are shifting your center of gravity, weight, and balance a bit forward beyond your movement. This will cause you to move less smoothly as you have to follow by shifting back to not lose your balance, and it will make transitioning to the next strike or technique a bit harder.

When kicking it is extra important to keep your base foot flat on the ground and NOT lift your foot up on your toes taking your heel off the ground. This creates massive imbalance when you are already on one leg vs. two legs.

Finally, pay attention to the direction that your feet are facing as you strike, or move to strike.

Are they facing and moving in the same direction as the rest of your body and your leg/arm in the strike?

If not, you are losing some transference of power- part of your generated power is moving in the direction of your foot and the other part of your power in the direction of your body. You want them both aligned for maximum fluidity and delivery of power.

That is what turns a hit into a strike.

TWO: Grappling

Grappling techniques be they throws, takedown, or immobilizations are about unbalancing your training partner while remaining in perfect balance yourself.

Bluntly put if your spine remains straight as you execute a grappling move and your feet are under your hips you will be in balance, while if your training partner’s spine is bent and their feet are not under the hips they can easily be thrown or taken.

Get them unbalanced ahead of time with footwork or movement, while you are in balance, and then perform the technique.

Likewise your hips control the center of gravity in a technique so if you want to make it easier to perform a grappling waza/move make sure your hips are always lower or below your training partner’s hips.

THREE: Postures

Martial arts postures known as kamae, stances, or ready positions have two aspects of movement in the martial arts.

They allow you to protect the weak points (kyusho) on your body that a training partner can attack, while at the same time making sure that if your training partner does attack, they will be forced to expose weakness in their own movement in order to attack you.

These martial arts postures also allow you to use the best and most powerful footwork to power your techniques.

Spend time drilling your postures as a foundation using the syllabus in part two.

If any element of your black belt test involves sparring or randori against a training partner, make sure our postures are PERFECT.

Before you even apply a technique to them they will be in a weak spot with their body in terms of balance and timing if your postures and movement make it hard for them- making your own technique that much easier to perform.


As we close out on the training guide here, I want to wish you the best on your upcoming black belt test and offer one last piece of advice to help you on the day of the test.

The very fact that you are able to take the test, that your teacher has recommended you for promotion or signed you up to take it, means that you DO have the tools, martial tech, and talent to make it happen and pass.

It will be a stressful event, it has to be, and it will be one of the hardest and most personally challenging events in your life.

But it is only a single moment in time, and a few steps on the path of your martial journey.

Work through the guide here, review your own lessons, and look to the senior students and other black belts in your school or training group for advice.

I will be with you in martial spirit on the day.

See you on the mat.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

How Long Does It Take To Get A Black Belt

How Long To Get A Black Belt?
This is a common question in the martial arts and one that I frequently get asked from new students entering the dojo. Let’s take a look at the reply since there are many layers to asking the question, both good and bad.
New students ask this question because of the cultural significance a black belt holds in our western culture. They may not know much about the martial arts, but they know a black belt equals mastery- after all aren’t many teachers a black belt?
From an eastern perspective and one of the Japanese martial arts this conclusion can seem quite puzzling since a black belt there equates to being accepted into the school and having a fundamental grasp at the basics of the art- now the “real” training can begin!
Hardly the sign of a master.
But over here in the west we still have that hold over, one that needs to be addressed.
As a student of the martial arts with a few years of practice under my belt, “How long to get a black belt” or any rank for that matter is a question I would never dare to ask, because I know better, from being told and shown better.
A new person to the training doesn’t know, so their question is one of general inquiry and needs to be addressed. Juniors in the arts can get away with a lot more than their seniors.
What makes it even harder is that the time, requirements, and definitions differ from martial art to martial arts, something they further might not understand since all black belts are the same.
So what I do with such a question is explain to them what a black belt means in my school- for both my students and myself as the main instructor.
On a basic level a black belt holder is a student that has an understanding and proficiency of the base skills required for our martial arts- ways of punching, kicking, locking, and moving the body. Of course they can’t do it “perfectly” yet, but they understand why, and are working to fix any little issues in the movement.
If you are an “average” student and train each week, along with practicing at home as best you can, the time to reach this base level of proficiency is about five to six years, leaning more towards the six side.
This is the “omote” (outer) section of the training that you can see, but there is also an inner (ura) portion of becoming a black belt.
While you are plugging away at learning the basic skills, as a teacher I’m also looking at your heart in training- do you have a fighting spirit, area you patient and compassionate to your fellow training partners and people in general. Are you ready to contribute to the school and the art or are you only at the dojo to “take”. 
I’m judging if you have the character to go the distance. The lessons of the dojo, and the culture are slowly taught in support of these goals alongside the basics…
…which leads to the question of how long DOES it takes to get a black belt?

How To Find The Best Martial Arts School

So you want to get started in the martial arts, and the question is where and how to start? In this article I hope to share with you some points in finding a good school, sticking with it, and taking your training through the first year. Are you ready, let’s get started!

The first step is to research the martial art you want to get started in. Maybe you already have an idea of what you want to study, maybe all you know is “martial arts”- either way the first step is to do some research on google and wiki reading about some of the more popular styles and traditions. Even if you have your mind set on one in particular, a bit of knowledge to compare and contrast is a big help. No need to become an expert, just read through and spend a few minutes becoming familiar. In case you need it here are a few arts to look into: Aikido, Jujutsu, Mixed Martial Arts, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Sambo, Systema, Brazilian Jujutsu.
Next step is to find a school in your area- location is KEY since you will be spending a considerable amount of time training in the years to come. Accessibility to the school, teacher, and students is key. I’d recommend a driving distance of no more than thirty minutes from your home to the school.
That’s not to say a longer driving (or travel) distance makes it impossible, if you are really interested in learning a particular art you might have to commute a considerable distance, but it does make things harder when life, work, and family come into the picture. So much of the martial arts of any style is about being physically present for training- you have to be there to get it, so naturally the more classes you can attend the better off you will be- that doesn’t mean you can neglect home training and on your own, but that is a bit out of the scope of this article for now.
Make a list of schools in your area for the style that you want to study as your starting point. Keep in mind that more might exist then just on the internet. Some school, especially the more traditional ones might not have a web site or even advertise (!). If there is no school in your immediate area, contact a few others as close as you can find them, or even email the head school of the style asking about instructors or classes in your area.
So now you have your list of school(s) and are ready for a visit to check it out- contacting the head teacher and setting up an appointment is your big first step. For a large commercial school you might just be able to show up and watch/try out a class- for smaller school or more traditional training environments setting up a time to visit is proper protocol.
Keep in mind that from the moment you email and on, the teacher of the school is sizing you up- will you be a good fit for the school, how will you interact in the group dynamic, what are you motivations for joining- good or bad?
Don’t just ask about the training times and if you can stop by- use it as an opportunity to break the ice and present yourself for that first visit. Examples…
My name is X and after having a chance to view your website regarding martial arts training I would like to inquire about finding out more about your school and visiting a class if you have any openings in the school.
I’m at a point in my life where I really feel like X training can benefit me, and I’d like to take that first step.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Start your letter off with a proper introduction, Mrs. Mr. etc. and not on a first name basis as it could be considered rude. You can also leave out any formal titles like shihan, sensei, etc. since you are not a member of the school and group- it would be considered odd to address somebody like that outside of the school.
Next list where and how you found about the training- be it a web site, personal introduction, friend, association, etc. followed by a reason why you would like to begin pursuing martial training. Be a bit humble and don’t presume anything.
From here, in a day or two an invite to watch a class will probably be extended and when it has follow up with another very brief email telling the teacher you will be stopping by, and thanking them, etc.
This is your first impression.
Don’t be late on your visit- and don’t be early either! Being late is just rude, and being early can disrupt things before class as many times things have to be set up, gear taken out, etc.
When you arrive at the school wait for somebody to approach you just inside the door or at the start of the mat. The teacher will be expecting you, and somebody will be over shortly. Again first impressions, be polite, quiet, and don’t presume anything.
Sometimes a teacher will send over a senior student to greet you as they (the teacher) might be busy at the moment. Don’t be insulted by this, it depends on the protocol of the school and what is going on at the moment.
Most likely you will then be seated to watch a bit of the class followed by talking to a senior student and or the teacher. What you notice and observe during this time is KEY in deciding if the school is right for you.
Of course you are watching techniques being demonstrated, training drills, etc.- all that martial arts stuff and you are judging with you own eyes if it is effective and what you want. But you also need to pay attention to the teacher, students, and the senior students.
Does the teacher treat the students in the class with respect? Do they have compassion and heart in the training? Are they calm and controlled, or an arrogant jerk? Do they serve the tradition or their ego? Would you enjoy studying under this teacher?
Art is important, but teacher is just as important if not more important. Studying the martial art you want under a bad teacher is worse than not studying the art at all.
BOTH need to be a good fit for you to learn.
Pay attention to the other students in the class. Class should be disciplined and serious to some extent, but the students there should look happy and engaged in the training and learning- not afraid or stressed out. They should all be on the same team learning and growing.
Finally look at the senior students- the ones with the black belts or who are asked to come up and demo techniques or explain things from time to time. These are the students who in most cases have been studying with the teacher the longest- sometimes many years. How do they move? Do they look and act capable? They are the product of the teacher and their training and can be a good indicator of where you will be heading.
Often after watching class or even a bit before you will have a chance to speak with the head instructor and ask them any questions. Be respectful, but be honest and frank with them- just as you are sizing the school up to see if it is a good fit, they are sizing you up. Same goes if you are speaking to one of the senior students.
From here if it is a good fit, and if you decide to study at the school you are all set- congratulations! On the other hand if it is not quite what you are looking for, or something just won’t work out- be polite and always follow up with a thank you email-  the martial arts community is smaller than you think, and even a teacher or school that isn’t a good fit might know of a similar school that would be a good fit. A polite reference can always help!

What Is A Black Belt In The Martial Arts

What is a black belt?

What does it represent in the martial arts?

In this training guide we are going to take a look at what it represents, the skills it puts in action, and the training tools needed to help you achieve it by passing your upcoming black belt test.

In the now twenty five years that I have been fortunate enough to study the martial arts I have participated in many black belt tests as a teacher and coach, and through all of them there was a main theme and transmission that it represents regardless of tradition, style, or school- and that is what we are going to examine in this training guide.

I want to get you ready with the tools and martial tech for your test…

…ready for success?

In the martial arts a black belt represents a level of maturity and skill in the martial arts, one is not a master, but not a starting student. A black belt is someone who is knowledgeable in their art, proficient in skill, and is a solid representative of their school, style, and tradition.

It is a blend of physical skills, mental understanding, and reasonability.

Many new students only see a black belt as a level of skill, and certainly there is skill involved, but there are other qualities which compliment and magnify this level of skill.

As you prepare for your black belt test keep these “other” skills in mind also.

What are the three parts of a black belt?

ONE: Physical Skills

TWO: Mental Skills

THREE: Dojo (tradition) Responsibilities

The exact physical skills of a black belt will be a bit different depending on the art and disciple that you are studying- is it a primarily striking martial arts, a mixed martial arts, are traditional training weapons involved?

Regardless of the exact list of black belt skills needed for your art, there will be the following common element found through all of them. An element on three levels that you will need to know and most likely demonstrate.

As an example, let’s say on your black belt waza (skills) list punching is the first training item.

At a basic level you will need to know how to execute a proper punch- in good form, balance, and striking through the target with sufficient force.

The second level of understanding is being able to take that perfect execution of a punch and do it under pressure- perhaps against a moving target, in sparing, or striking a heavy bag.

And the final element of black belt knowledge would be in understanding of the mechanics that power a punch- the how and why it works, and how one would communicate those principals to another student or training partner.

For a black belt there is not only a needed level of skill, but the ability to show and express that skill to others in class or training if needed.

For many students in preparing for their black belt test they will stop that the physical, and certainly some martial arts school only focus or care about the physical aspects, but with this guide I want to help coach you, or give you the ideas to not only PASS your test, but to BECOME a black belt, and with that there is always a spiritual component.

My choice in using the definition “spiritual” refers to the set of skills in the martial arts that is a blend of mental and emotional abilities, and not spiritual in terms of religion. A black belt should be able to demonstrate the following, and have the following martial arts tech powering their movements:

Awareness: As you are training, are you aware of what is around you? The other students, what is going on in class? When you train with your partner, is there a focus, a heightened awareness (zanshin) that you always have “on”.

A good way to develop this awareness and presence is each time you are training with a partner, and you have finished your technique, pause for a moment and be ready for the next attack or multiple other opponents. In this way you are always training to be ready for the “next” or whatever situation might happen in a moment’s notice.

Another spiritual skill of being a black belt is having an immovable spirit (fudoshin). The ability to continue training, pushing yourself, keep going in class no matter how tired, hot, cold, or sparing exhausted.

The ability to finish to the end no matter what.

Certainly a part of this is physical endurance, but it is also knowing how far you can push yourself, and how to push yourself even further.

Over time this is developed by constant repetition of techniques.

In the Japanese martial arts, there is a spiritual discipline for developing fudoshin by becoming what is known as a “hundred day person”.

What is one of the basics (kihon) of your martial art?

Perhaps a certain strike, block, or downward cut with the sword?




To become a hundred day person, every day you do one hundred repetitions of one of these simple kihon moves, and you do them for one hundred days.
As you are practicing them, if you make a mistake, or it is not movement perfect, you start over and reset the count.

If you miss a day, you start over and reset the count.

For one hundred unbroken days, you perform one hundred unbroken movements.

Complete this exercise alone, and you will have both fudoshin and a clarity of purity in the martial arts.

The third main skill of a black belt is having no mind- mushin.

No mind doesn’t mean not tactically assessing a situation, but rather executing a technique without having to think how to do it, or what the steps are in performing it or making it work.

You develop mushin by always finishing a martial arts technique no matter how badly you are performing it. Always condition your martial mind and thinking to finish your movement and never stop moving.

Think about the black belt’s in your dojo or gym.

Think about the black belts that you respect or look to for inspiration in the martial arts.

Look at the champions and the best in the arts.

100% without question they have skill, but in addition to that skill they have a certain spiritual focus to them- develop that focus as it is key to earning and becoming a black belt.

The final element of what goes into making a black belt is often discovered after the fact, and is very hard to see before becoming a black belt, yet at the same time, it is an important element.

Something that your teacher or coach will be looking for as they prepare you to take your test, and this element is the new-responsibility you will have as a black belt to your dojo, school, or training group.

To borrow a Japanese martial arts term, you will be a sempai- a senior to the other junior students in your group. They will be looking towards you and your action, just as you looked towards the black belts ahead of you in both skill and behavior.

A black belt is not about going your own way, but rather going deeper into the tradition, training, and your studies in the martial arts.

Before we move to part two in this guide and start preparing a success outline for the day of your test I’d like to share with you a part of my black belt test, and some mistakes NOT to make.

Now, in my role as a martial arts coach, my ultimate goal for my students and those I advice is to cut down their learning curve in the martial arts.

If it took me six months to learn a certain skill item, or to get to a belt level, now with my experience and hard won lessons, I should be able to get YOU to that level in half the time, or perhaps even less.

When I was awarded my 1st degree black belt in 1999 it took me a good two years or so to FEEL like a black belt.

The reason for this is that I had a number of self imposed notions of what a black belt should be- entirely of my own creation. Strong, a certain body image, how I thought I should behave, move and act.

There was a level of immaturity there, and it slowed down my momentum and learning in the martial arts.

I’ve certainly long ago corrected my mistakes, but it did cost me a hard amount of lessons and time…

…don’t make this mistake when you become a black belt.

When you receive your black belt, be proud, be confident, be bold, but don’t put a definition of what a black belt should be- remain empty.

Let the movement and teachings of your martial art define and mold you as to what you should be as a black belt.

Allow yourself to start over as nothing, and let the martial arts build you back up. This “new” foundation will serve you well as you move to 2nd, 3rd, and beyond black belt levels.

At the very least it will leave less to undo and unlearn as you progress beyond black belt.
A good teacher will not let you make the same mistakes they did in their own martial arts journey.