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"Higher Learning"
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"Higher Learning"


The "Higher Learning" Blog is written by internationally recognised martial artist and author, Neil R. Hall.  Neil shares his time between his position as Director of the Institute for Advanced Integrated Martial Arts  and regular teaching in London the Cotswolds, and Worcestershire, England, with LCTKD

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Giving 110%




So, unless you are one of my students, you may have seen the title, understood that I'm a martial artist, and so now expect some sort of exhortation to push harder, to do more, to give it your all.... and then some.  


But that's not it.  What I want to say is that, while progress in martial arts is often – and very rightly – associated with commitment and dedication, pictures of people on Twitter dripping in sweat with motivational words about going the extra mile are more often put there by people who want to motivate themselves, or want to fill their gyms, than by people who have decades of martial arts experience.  How can I say that?  Because martial artists understand about balance.  


Yes, of course, that includes balance in the sense of being able to stand on one leg and not fall over, but I want to talk about balance in the sense of life.  To progress to an exceptional level in any martial art – and I include non-combat Tai Chi here – it really does help to be a bit of a nerd.  A bit obsessive.  You've got to want to do it a lot.  You've got to want to never give up.  So, that's 110%, right?  Well, no. 


Pushing yourself to your limits is a great thing to do.  Going beyond what you thought were your limits is incredible.  So to everyone I would say: yes, do get that experience, and if you can get it often.  But not every day.  Pushing yourself to get to classes regularly does help you progress - in fact, it’s essential.  Pushing yourself to your limit and maybe beyond now and again helps inspire you.  But pushing yourself to and beyond your limit every day does not help you progress.  It helps you get injured.  How many martial arts schools are half-filled with incredibly willing and dedicated students who are there wrapped in bandages to keep them training through their latest injury?  Ever been in a TaeKwonDo dojang and seen long standing instructors who can't walk properly because their knees are shot?  


You have to know when to stop.  When you stop, your body recovers.  When you rest, your brain has a chance to catch up with your learning, analyse, assess, question and store.  So it’s important to know when you have done enough, and stop.  Here’s a simple analogy.  Eating is good for you.  It makes you healthy, helps you to grow fit and strong, and stay in good shape.  If you don’t eat enough, you’ll be in a bad way, so it’s important to eat enough.  But eat too much?  We know where that leads.


Now the interesting thing about balance is the balance.  Sounds odd, huh?  Well you’d be surprised how many people, when they talk about getting some balance in their life, they mean giving up on something that’s tough.  Exercise less and, well…. lie on the couch all day.  Drink a glass of wine each night, and, well… drink another glass.  And maybe another.  Balance is not about giving something up, it’s about balancing it.  Sometimes, the quest for balance can become more like running up and down a see-saw: at one moment you are totally at one and, and the next you are at the other.  That time when you are in the middle is so fleeting the two sides never become still. 


Being balanced isn’t about giving one thing 110% to the exclusion of all others.  It’s also not about giving everything up and doing nothing.  But here’s another thing: it’s not about giving up one 110% and replacing it with another.  You’d be surprised how often people who were very committed, let us say over-committed, to their martial arts suddenly give them up altogether, in order to be just as over-committed to something else.  They talk about needing to find some balance, but they don’t they are running from one over-commitment into another.   It’s just running up and down the see-saw.  There’s no balance in that.  

I was reminded of a typical example of this when the exam results came out for teenagers in the UK this month.  You might be surprised, and you might not, at just how many teenagers who have real potential in martial arts, and are really committed, just give up because they feel they have to work extra hard for their exams.  Commonly, they do this at the beginning of the academic year when their exams kick in, eight or nine months before the exams are actually held.  They aren’t using the time freed up from their martial arts as part of a plan to balance their life; they are just giving all the time over to studying.  And that means they move from quite a lot of time studying already to a very great deal of studying.  As if this is going to help.  Which it isn’t.  Studying is like everything else: too much of it is not going to make you better, but instead will make you worse.  Our brains work better when released from long periods of concentration, when allowed to change gear and do some physical activity.  As I saw quoted somewhere recently: things seem to work better if you unplug them for a while - including you. 


Okay, so you want to say now, “that’s fine for him to say, he hasn’t taken an exam for over thirty years and he doesn’t need any more qualifications and he wants people not to give up martial arts.”  Well that’s all true.  As is the fact of Myles Langley’s exam results.  Who is Myles Langley?  He’s an assistant instructor at LCTKD in England, where I teach.  He’s 16.  This year was his exam year.  In this year he became a Black Belt in TaeKwonDo and a started his programme as a probationary Instructor, and he even learnt some Tai Chi.  His Instructor didn’t expect him to put in his usual class time right in the middle of the exams, but she did expect him to attend a reasonable, and of course not injurious, amount through most of the year.  In his GCSE exams he got 10 A*.  If you are not a familiar with the English exam system, that’s the very highest possible marks it’s possible to get.  Thank you, Myles, for making my point so succinctly - and congratulations, by the way. 


Like me, you might think exams are a joy which has long passed, and so this isn’t something that matters greatly to you.  I do see, though, the same thing in my students of more mature years.  It happens most particularly in respect of their work.  They think they had better work harder to get that position, impress the boss, go for promotion.  They put 110% into that, and because they have no time left, they give up on the things in their lives that are actually good for them - not only martial arts, but family, friends, rest.  In the years when I actually obeyed the instruction so often given to George Thorogood in his great song, “Get a Haircut and Get a Real Job,” I found that working harder and spending more time in the office was almost always something the bosses wanted you to do, but almost never the route to a pay rise.  Balance is a better option all round.  


So summer’s over, and you are looking at the year ahead.  If you are thinking of making a resolution to give anything 110%, don’t.  Plan for balance, and life will be so much healthier, happier, and more productive. 

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Stripping It All Away


I want to talk about what progress in martial arts is really about. I'm going to talk a lot about the process of grading examinations, so before reading on, I want to let people know that I'm not weighing in to support either of the camps which might be characterised as "gradings are the only way to prove yourself" or "gradings are a modern fad which have nothing to do with real martial arts."


I am actively involved with 5 different martial arts. 2 of those have grading examinations built in to their structure. 1 has class-based assessment, also built in. 1 has examinations but they are optional and much in the background. 1 has no such system and you just do it. I have graded in some (they say I'm good at it), and not in others. I guess more than most, I've seen all sides.


I certainly appreciate that properly conducted grading examinations provide a check, and in the best schools an independent check, on progress, and offer some very important external validation to students, their teachers, and their schools.


Now, what I want so say, is this. "Is that it?"


If martial arts history were a day, the grading examinations as we know them now would have been around for just the last half hour. For thousands of years, martial artists were training in martial techniques, and over their lifetime in the martial arts going through the process of "from body, to mind, to spirit." For me, that's what martial arts was about before gradings came along, and what it is about still.


The transformation of a martial artist is more than external performance. It is also a process of self development, and ultimately self-realization, that can be achieved only by looking inwards. More than anything else, it is a gradual stripping away of the ego. Unlike performance, which can be taught to an able student remarkably quickly (one of my martial arts friends trained for a week and was awarded a black belt by a very well respected martial artist, on the basis of being able to do all the things required in that style), the stripping away of the ego is a slow process. It takes commitment. It takes dedication. It takes time.


We make a lot, as teachers of martial arts, of how the practise of martial arts is life changing. It's a common marketing theme. But if what we are doing is all about the performance, how is that changing someone's life? If people rattle through the grades without the commensurate change in their mindest, and indeed their personality, is that enough to really make them a "black belt"?


Though you don't have to take the grading examinations to study TaeKwonDo with LCTKD, it is fair to say that this particular, very modern, art, has a philosophy of grading built in to it. With this in mind, we have had cause to take a long, hard look at what exactly makes a "black belt," not only in the grading examinations, but alongside them. We have considered very carefully the relationship between the ability to perform well in grading examinations and the quest for self development. Some might call this the Yang and the Yin of martial arts.


We have considered the importance of external, and preferably independent, validation. We have also considered how too much emphasis on the examinations alone can make people look outside, and not inside, to themselves. Unless martial arts schools are very careful, they can end up colluding in the myth that peforming well for a few hours one afternoon somehow means people are "better" in all respects. Is it any wonder, with so much emphasis on performance and so little on person, that we find ourselves in the martial arts world surrounded by teachers who are arrogant, ignorant, and even bullies?


So what have we, at LCTKD concluded, and what have we done about it?


Of course, what and how you teach matters. We don't teach only an external syllabus of techniques, but also internal values. Questioning about those values forms a major part of our more senior gradings. But how do we ensure these are actually taken on, though, since people can just rote learn the answer they think you want to hear?


Interesting question.


If someone is obviously not of the right character, we would not submit them for a grading examination. How to assess that, and how to instill it, are interestingly connected. We see it as a matter of time. Assessment of a person takes time. And self development takes time. Time in class with others, time with teachers, time in study, all matter. Not only does allowing a significant time between gradings give teachers a proper opportunity to assess someone's character, it also gives that person the time to develop. It's all about time.....


So we insist on strict rules about length of time between grading examinations, and on attendance hours in class between examinations. If you don't take the time, and don't attend the classes, your Instructor will want to question your dedication, will be concerned about your lack of respect, and won't have a chance to assess the development of your character.


As for you, will you really be able to perform well enough in your examination to get the next grade? Well, as the example of my friend showed, a physically talented person just might. But we won't enter you for the grading anyway, because whatever you can demonstrate externally, will not be balanced by the requisite changes inside. To become a complete martial artist worthy of the title, you need the dedication to match Yang with Yin.  

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Fall Down Seven Times

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It's nearly Easter time. For Christians, it's a very special time of year. One of the central themes of Easter is starting afresh. Easter comes at spring time, it echoes with the surrounding rhythm of life, when plants seem to be reborn, and the world comes alive once again.


It's surprisingly hard for people to start over, and so it's nice when there's a festival which gives people permission to. That gives us a reminder that starting over is not only possible, but worthwhile.


While I turn this thought to my martial arts teaching, I realise just how often, in martial arts of all sorts, teachers experience the frustration of people giving up at what in truth is no great difficulty. And not starting over. Just giving up. It's a terrible waste.


Every day I hear people say "I can't do it." Sometimes, that can be put right by showing them, gently, that in fact they can. (What a great feeling that is!). But other times, it's the start of a journey to nowhere. So many people let a minor injury, an inability to grasp things in an instant, a hard session, or a failure to remember, be a cause to throw away what could have been a great martial arts career, a life-changing and perhaps a life-saving path.


People often look at me and say "well it's easy for you!" In truth, no it isn't. I have done well in martial arts, but I have done well because I have worked hard. When faced with not being able to do something, I have called upon two great allies – resilience and patience. In time, if I keep going, I'll get there. And I'll probably get there faster than I have any right to expect.


Of course, it would be wrong to belittle people's difficulties. Sometimes things are really hard, and sometimes progress seems downright impossible. Sometimes we are knocked flat. When this happens, I recall what I always say when someone asks me to comment about a new student of prodigious talent. I say: "you never know someone's metal until they've been knocked down flat. Only then will you be able to tell if they've got what it takes." Many people are good till they are knocked down, but no further.


Now let me tell you a truth about martial arts and life. You will get knocked down.


And when it happens, you need to be prepared to have another go. Start afresh. Don't worry that it was difficult. Don't worry that you got it wrong. Don't worry that it doesn't seem like you can do it. Just get back up.


There's a Japanese proverb often quoted by martial artists. "Fall seven times and stand up eight." With little more than that belief, we can surpass so many others, and surpass ourselves.


Interestingly enough, people around you will not treat you badly for struggling last time. They will be impressed with your fortitude when you have another go. So start afresh Easter time.


Happy Easter.  

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Plodding On


Today we welcome Chinese New Year. This year, it is the Year of the Sheep. (Some say Ram, some say Goat – but it's all the same year.)


We've had some colourful characters over the past few years – going backwards, the horse, the snake, and the dragon. With the horse's propensity to bolt off without thinking, the snake's capacity to be unscrupulous as it seeks to get ahead, and the dragon's tumultuous storm-bringing, a gentle year is very welcome.


The sheep is considered fortunate in China. In the I Ching, the sheep is linked with the trigram for "The Joyous," which is an omen for good times. The sheep is thought to be gentle, kind and empathic. It is a steady, reliable animal. Productive and friendly. Not dangerous or unpredictable, like some of those we saw in recent years.


Chinese years go not only by the animals of the Chinese zodiac, but also by the five Chinese elements. So each year the animal is linked with an element which shapes the year's characteristics. In 2015 the element is wood, so what we have is the Year of the Wood Sheep.


Wood is the sign of spring, of growth, so combining animal and element what we have for 2015 is a year of gentle growth, of friendship and productivity, of steadily moving forward.


That's not a bad year for martial artists. I often tell my students of people who come to me, and after a single hour exclaim that they have found their salvation, that their lives will now change forever, that they will become disciples of the martial arts and dedicate their lives to following my teaching. This happens more often than you might imagine, and I always respond with caution. With caution, because more often than not I never see them again.


It can be a similar story with some of the people who do stay, flinging themselves into all and everything, flying through the martial arts sky like a star. Too often a falling star.... such exuberance over the first few months is sometimes the mark of a true talent, but more often the overcombustion that leads to burn out.


People ask me, "can you tell right at the beginning who will become a black belt?" I always respond that grit and family support have more to do with progress in the martial arts than speed or agility. Similarly, I look around the room for the unsung ones; the people who just train steadily, week after week; the people who seem to learn a little at a time, but retain what they learn; the people who are still there a year later, and another year, and another year, gradually improving, just plodding on. Commonly, the route to true greatness in the martial arts is just plodding on.


So, welcome to the year of the Wood Sheep, and as it plods on may it bring you good joyousness, friendship, and good fortune.





Kung Hei Fat Choi



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Family Life



A thought came to both Mrs H and myself at about the same time this year. It's not surprising that we think the same things at the same time, since we recently celebrated our thirty-first wedding anniversary. Anyway, the thought that came to us as we received so many presents, cards and well wishes from our respective students, was just how much genuine affection there was in the giving.


I suppose it's not all that surprising that, as the martial arts school LCTKD, which I co-founded with Gareth Hall in London's Chinatown, arrives at its tenth anniversary, the people who are part of it are going to feel no small amount of affection for the school, the dozen Instructors who help to run it (thank you, every one of you!), and their fellow students.


We often refer to the "LCTKD Family," and our welcome letter actually welcomes students to that family. This might sound a bit over familiar, but the closeness of relationships in martial arts is very well established. In China through recent centuries it has been normal to refer to your fellow students as your "martial arts brothers and sisters," and I was reminded of this when I saw a recent post on the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog using this description.


That reminded me, in turn, of the fact that I am often referred to as "uncle" in Chinatown. Not, I hope, because my brother and sister have Chinese little ones they have forgotten to mention, but because it's a term of respect for the older teachers (who are you calling old?), and another reference to the perception of martial arts family.


I was talking recently to a colleague about just why the martial arts engender such familial feelings. His thought was that it was to do with the physical contact, the sort of rolling and tumbling of children's play, a sharing of experience that is otherwise only found amongs siblings. Whilst there are many other theories, of course, that unusual one is one I find quite compelling.


Whatever the theory, and whatever the reason, we do know for sure that being part of a martial arts school feels like being part of an extended family, and we know that this is often recognised in the way people refer to each other. Long may it be this way. So, as Christmas approaches and my own thoughts turn to extending my good wishes to friends and family, I would like to say "Happy Christmas" to all my martial arts brothers and sisters, neices and newphews - and to a handful of uncles and aunts, too.


Happy Christmas.  

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Flying Handbags


It is a joy to be reading at the moment the autobiography of Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate. It's called "Karate-do, My Way of Life," and it's a real insight into the life and the mind of one of the true greats of martial arts.


In the book, Funakoshi talks about changing the names of Karate kata, and indeed significantly changing the kata themselves. Though a strict traditionalist, he had this to say:


Let me assure the reader that I labor under no misapprehension that the names I have chosen are changeless and eternal. I have no doubt whatsoever that in the future, as times change, again and then again, the kata will be given new names. And that, indeed, is at it should be.


It is common in martial arts for people to become very focused on the tradition of their art. Many people would argue, with plenty of justification, that this is an essential part of what becoming a martial artist is – an immersion in the tradition of the art. Without it, what exactly would we be? Glorified street brawlers?


Yet as in all things, health requires balance. For our martial art to be healthy, we must respect the tradition, but not make of that respect a blind obsession that forgets our traditions were themselves created from what went before. Martial arts are living things, and living things should adapt and grow.


Sometimes, growth and adaptation comes from a carefully considered, fully discussed and thoroughly worked out step.


A few years ago, I worked with my son Gareth on the strengthening of the traditional TaeKwonDo syllabus we had taught for a number of years at London Chinatown TaeKwonDo, and had inherited pretty much unchanged from a much respected lineage back to the founder, General Choi. We strengthened it by introducing much more practical self defence work, including perhaps most importantly work on restraints. TaeKwonDo, molded together during the appalling barbarity of the Korean War, began as an art for soldiers – soldiers who had direct, brutal and often repeated experience of hand to hand combat to the death. There was little scope for learning restraints – and indeed such learning might have been a life-threatening distraction.


TaeKwonDo as it was originally taught has so very very much for the modern citizen in countries like the UK, in its structure, its tradition, its fitness and health giving aspects, its discipline, focus, and its potential for personal development. Yet as what Alex Gillis so aptly terms the "Killing Art," it does lack a recognition of the circumstances of most of its current students. Were we to teach them only the killing art, without other options, surely we would be culpable should they kill someone unnecessarily when defending themselves, for lack of training in less lethal options. So we, experienced martial artists with hundreds of students learning from us, and after long debate with our fellow instructors, introduced some extra elements to address that.


But change is not always so formal. In fact, I would venture to say that it is rarely so. Names, especially, change in translation and change from teacher to pupil. I have a great example from my own Tai Chi teaching. Recently, my friends David Cunningham and Richard Northwood mentioned that they break down whole postures into distinct parts, and get their students to give those parts their own names, as an aid to learning the postures and each part of the transition from one to another. I do this too, and a little while ago I was asking students in Redditch to go through a section of the Yang Style Short Form, as it came up to "Part Horse's Mane." Now I don't need to explain the move in full for the purposes of this article, but what I do need to say is that to begin the move the practitioner spreads their arms apart, and lifts their right hand out and back beyond their right shoulder, with the palm turning up. It's an expansive gesture. I had encouraged the students to "name the parts," and experienced student Mike Coleman shouted out "flying handbags!".


Everyone laughed, and the idea of swinging our handbags out and back over our shoulders was so evocative that the name stuck. I have used it countless times, and it works perfectly as an indicator of what to do.


Then yesterday I learnt something interesting. We were talking in Mike's class about how useful the phrase was, and Mike said: "you know what? I didn't actually say that. What I said was 'fly hand back.' But you repeated it as "flying handbags" and that seemed to stick so I just left it at that."


So we have introduced a new term, and a new way of teaching that movement. It's based entirely on some mis-heard words. We've come across it by accident, rather than design. And yet.... it works fine. In years to come, this term I am sure will be used many times and will probably be used in classes taught by people who are at the moment my students. It is entirely possible that even its mistaken origins will be lost, and it is quite likely that, in time, it will be superceded by something else.


Funakoshi would no doubt be smiling.    

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Teaching Maths


Quite a number of my personal students are themselves teachers of one sort or another. I teach quite a few maths teachers, interestingly enough. All this makes me think sometimes that teaching maths must be quite like teaching martial arts. After all, people come to us wanting to learn something. They want to be good – or at least better – at maths or martial arts. They expect to see improvement, and expect their teachers to help ensure that. They may very well want to ensure that they can use their maths for practical purposes – adding up the household bills, checking their change in a shop, or working out something so incredibly complicated that non-mathematicians would never even understand the problem, let alone be capable of offering the solution.


So, since the disciplines are so similar, I imagined a typical conversation between Maths teacher and student.


STUDENT: I can't really do calculus. I thought I'd just skip that part.


TEACHER: Okay, well it's in the syllabus, and there's quite a few things you need it for. And you can't do your exam unless you understand it.


STUDENT: Well I thought I could just do the rest of the stuff, and you could give me the qualification anyway, because I'm really good at some of the other stuff, and if I can't do calculus, it's not my fault.


TEACHER: Oh, well, I see. Is it just calculus, or maybe there are some other things? I notice you seemed to have some trouble adding things up last week.


STUDENT: No, I'm really good at that.


TEACHER: Great. It's just that when we did that 2 + 2 and you said you'd prefer it to be 5, not 4?


STUDENT: Yeah, that's right. I like that much better. It's a much better sum. I always use it.


TEACHER: Oh. But it doesn't work, does it?


STUDENT: Yeah, it always works. And I think it looks much better. 4 is a bit to angular. I like a few curves, you know what I mean?


TEACHER: Curves?


STUDENT: Yeah, things with curves are better. And I'm not sure about the way you use numbers. I mean, why can't we do it like the ancient Chinese used to do? They had much cooler numbers. I read somewhere that their numbers have a kind of special power, and they're more authentic.


TEACHER: Well, I'm not sure about that, but I can see that they do look kind of cool in movies about ancient Chinese wizards and stuff like that. It's just that the movies aren't quite what we're learning Maths for. Why don't we focus on some practice?


STUDENT: Okay, but can we do some Modern Maths Applications? I mean, MMA is more, like, real. I mean, you couldn't do this adding up on the street, could you? It just wouldn't work.


TEACHER: Ah, well, the Modern Maths Applications stuff is actually what we're doing here. It just has a bit more publicity. And you've got to work really hard to get good enough to do it. It takes years of doing what we're doing here to get really ready for the MMA. So let's get to work!


STUDENT: Sure. Can we do the arithmetical points stuff this week? In arithmetical points you don't need to know about adding and subtracting and all that, because you just push the arithmetical points and then all your calculations are done, like magic. I saw this guy on YouTube, and he was trying to figure out how to build a complex algorithm and he just pressed the arithmetical point and it kind of folded down for him, right there. Can you show me how to do that?


TEACHER: I think you need to focus a bit more on your adding and subtraction for now. Let's focus on that before you think about things that might be more appropriate to a Professorial Chair in Mathematics at Oxford.


STUDENT: At the school down the road, you can be a Professorial Chair in a just a year.


TEACHER: Oh, good grief!

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The Nearness of Violence


I feel the nearness of violence.


In my work, I specialise in practical, real-life self defence. I teach a military martial art. I study another fighting art. I have studied and continue to study many other combat arts. In this way, I am very like other professional martial artists. It's what we do.


Yet I, like many other professional martial artists, feel frustrated by the response most often given by someone who has just found out what I do: "I'd better watch what I say to you, then!" As if, because I am a martial artist, I'll wrap a spinning kick round the head of anyone who says something to offend. Depending on how tired I feel, I might make the time to explain that, on the contrary, people should feel less worried about what they say to me, because I would be more likely to exercise restraint even when provoked, given all that training I've had in remaining calm, disciplined, and clear thinking; so on balance, you don't need to worry what you say as much as you would with someone else. Or I might just let it go.


I guess this comment is a particularly hurtful joke (if it is a joke) to martial artists, because it feeds on a preconception of martial artists as violent people, teaching violence to others, and perhaps spreading a doctrine of violence. When it's your living, it's very hard to see and hear that preconception running unchecked – not only because it hurts to be seen in such an unfair way, but also because many people will accept it, and as a result won't come to learn from you, and won't send their kids to learn from you. On the basis of the preconception, they won't see your teaching as bringing discipline, focus, calm, or even the ability to self protect in a world full of very real threats, but they will see your teaching epitomised by a philosophy that the way to resolve any problem, however minor, is by violence. Not what any civilised person wants their child to learn.


Even where people do accept that, in fact, you teach discipline and focus, self development and personal growth, confidence and service of others, they might well think: "in the end, it's still about violence, however you dress it up, and that's just not for me."


As more people have become professional martial artists, and the market ever more crowded, many of those martial artists have looked at ways of selling their services to people for whom the nearness of violence proves difficult, by looking at things that might be, or might be conceived to be, less... well.... violent. I was reading this week an interesting article on the Chinese Martial Studies Website "Kung Fu Tea" about how this has been a phenomenon in China just as much as in the west.


On the same day, I listened to a podcast from a well respected western Karate master (well respected by me, too), who was at pains to point out that martial arts were about art, and not about fighting or about self defence, and his practice of martial arts was about personal experience and self development, more than anything else. I wondered why he felt it so necessary to make this point.


Like so many other martial artists around the world seeking new markets amongst those not interested in learning to fight, and perhaps even averse to anything connected to violence, I too teach non-combat version classes. In my case, I teach Taiji (Tai Chi), to some people who would also like to use it to fight, and to many more who don't want to fight, and my Taiji classes are non-combat. People can move in to combat arts if they want to, but that's entirely up to them.


And yet.....


I teach martial arts. The clue is in the name. However far away it is, what I teach is about, related to, or derived from learning to fight. I don't hold with arguments that traditional martial arts have lost their connection with real world self defence. Not the way I teach them, they haven't, and both I and my students have sadly had cause to prove that in the real world, defending ourselves and others. No. The truth is, when I teach someone a TaeKwonDo pattern, they may be learning to move better, to breath more effectively. They may be getting fitter. They may be moving their Qi. They may be getting in touch with something even spiritual. But in the end, they are learning fighting movements, and ultimately those movements are derived from teaching to fight, and there is a good chance that learning them will help my student should they ever need to fight.


While I baulk at the comment: "I'd better watch what I say, then," and while I want to emphasise that I don't teach people to be violent, I have no wish to deny the fact of what I teach. When I teach or help in children's classes in TaeKwonDo, the children learn sparring and self defence from their first day, even the tiny ones. It's a martial art. That's what we do. We teach our students not to be violent, and we teach them to understand and not be afraid of violence.


Even the many Taiji students who don't want to learn to fight, learn the Taiji as a martial art. That is, they learn about its martial history, and they learn the movements as fighting movements, their martial purpose explained and discussed.


A little over a year ago, after some discussion about why we felt so uncomfortable about martial arts derivatives like children's exercise parties, boxercise or non-combat MMA (no, really, I know of a class nearby), the instructor forum which guides the work at LCTKD, the martial arts school where I teach regular public classes, decided that we would not teach any of these things. We would only teach martial arts, and we would be clear about it. Our fighting arts would have fighting in them, and our "internal" arts would not be shy about their martial background. It just seemed a matter of integrity.


So I am not a violent person, and I do not teach violence. In my private study, much of my time is spent on things which might not have a modern martial application, and which are about health, healing and spirit. Even so, I am aware of the nearness of violence. I am, after all, a martial artist. 

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Alchemy and Horses


I was talking to an old friend last night about one of my favourite topics – alchemy in the martial arts. Strictly speaking, alchemy is the quest to turn base metals into gold, using a secret process, a special formula, or perhaps a magic spell. It was a quest that transfixed even the most intelligent of people for centuries, and if we don't hear about it so much now, it's not because it has been lost, only because it has become something else. Instead of base metals into gold, people chase after "spells" that make ordinary people incredibly sexually attractive with just one spray (you have seen the Lynx commercials, haven't you?), or "tricks" that make fat people thin in a fortnight, flabby people suddenly muscle-bound, or, of course, "secrets" that can make people who know nothing about martial arts suddenly expert – just by finding out the "secrets" that instructors won't tell them, but happen to be available if you – as long as they send off enough money to the alchemist.


I've repeated often enough the martial arts adage that there are no secrets that cannot be unlocked with a thousand hours of training. But people don't always want to work that hard, and so the prospect of something that makes you all-knowing in an instant, without any work at all, can be a very compelling one.


Watching so many students every year on their martial arts journey, I see many who want to reach the summit of the mountain without actually climbing. Even if you forget the important advice that the martial arts life is a journey, and not a destination, and remain transfixed only by the destination – the black belt, the status, the title - it's important to remember that on a martial arts journey we have no vehicles but our own bodies and minds – and unless we are very skilled indeed, our bodies cannot fly. So if we want to climb a mountain, we'll only get there by taking every step.


It's not that people tend to come to me and ask for the "hidden secrets" to be revealed (though it does happen), because most martial arts students, and certainly students of mine, are long past that. Not so crass, then, but it's still a quest for alchemy in its own way if you seek to take your black belt grading in a shorter time, or jump grades because your ego tells you that you are more talented than others, or give less than 100% because that gets you through it as long as no-one is watching, or talk about virtues when asked, then fail to exhibit them even amongst your colleagues in your own class, let alone in your life – because talking about the virtues is enough to get you the gongs – whether you live by them is often ignored. In the end, it's all a vain attempt to posses gold (or black) without earning it, without taking the journey. Fools gold, indeed.


As the Chinese Year of the Horse arrives, spontaneity takes the forefront. We can travel far, and move forward at incredible speed. But let us make sure that in our martial arts journey we don't try to propel ourselves forward by missing the steps. We know that every step we take makes us stronger as martial artists – better, then, not to miss a single one. 

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If it's good enough for Jesus....


As we enter the Christmas season, there are, of course, plenty of things to reflect on. Last year I talked about martial artists and peace. This year, I'd like to reflect on what is a little discussed part of the Christmas story, and how it relates to martial artists of all religions.


Christmas, as most readers will know, is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, who Christians believe was the son of God coming to earth in human form. Other religions (Islam, for example) revere him as a prophet, and his teachings of love, peace, forgiveness and non-violence find their ways into many religions and cultures around the world.


Jesus was not born a prince. In fact, he was born to a poor family, and in the must humble of surroundings. The Christmas story tells how, with his parents travelling to another town to take part in a census, and there being no place for them to stay, Jesus came to be born in a stable.


So, how exactly does this relate to martial arts in the modern day?


Well there are plenty of martial arts schools located in plush facilities, where students work in beautifully designed, perfectly lit, mirrored rooms with sprung floors and water coolers, and where they can stroll over to the bar after a session, or perhaps stop off at the pool or the sauna. But by and large, the practice of martial arts is not a pastime of the rich. While access to the sauna might be an aspiration to some, the truth is that most martial arts schools work in more modest surroundings. Even where schools have their own facilities, winter time can mean cold sessions in poorly heated facilities, with the rain coming in, or dark walks to badly lit basements.


Most don't, in fact, have their own places. Though Bruce Lee did have a studio in the end, he and his colleagues used to train at the back of people's houses, in the yard. A famous group of his first students would get together for years in someone's garage. And perhaps a little less famously, when I started teaching with my son Gareth in London's Chinatown, students walked up a dark and foreboding set of stairs into a tiny, cluttered space where we had to stack tables and chairs high just to let us all stand up, let alone jump about. Institute Honorary Fellow David Michael Cunningham trained outside tents in Iraq with colleauges in the army, and the the Institute's Honorary Fellows list is full of tales of community centres, junior schools, community halls. My colleauges at LCTKD, Jon Alagoa and Sami Remili train outside in public parks in London and Algeria respectively, just as I used to do with my sparring partner Jabir Mir back in the day - which got us some healthy crowds!


The Christmas story holds out something for all those martial arts teachers, and their students, who shiver in cold halls while they demonstrate their dedication to their art: truly wonderful things are born in the most meagre surroundings.


Enjoy your Christmas, and may your New Year be peaceful, healthy, and prosperous – whatever your surroundings. 

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