Lineage and Legitimacy, The Imposing Twin Peaks of Martial Arts.

In my short three years as a ninpoka (In Japanese, “ka” as a suffix means practitioner) , I’ve seen, and read a lot of thoughts on lineage and legitimacy. I’ll take a moment and explain these terms in relation to the martial arts. Lineage refers to the succession of teachers who taught any given art from its inception to you, the practitioner. Legitimacy refers whether, or not, a style is inherently able to teach a person actual self-defense skills. In other words, would this person walk away from a fight intact?

As far as I understand it, lineage matters to some people because the purity of the martial art is sustained and passed from person to person intact. Ancient scrolls are only passed to those who deserve it most, secrets are told to only those who show the ability to teach the art as it is to the next generation. Lineage is essential to legitimacy in many ways. Proof that someone’s teacher is who they say are provides faith in an instructor, faith that they are passing on the direct knowledge of the progenitor of their style. If you claim to be teaching authentic American Kenpo, your lineage better trace back to Ed Parker. Otherwise you’re seen as a poser, or worse a charlatan. Some say that lineage doesn’t matter if the style doesn’t legitimately protect someone during a fight.

So what happens when someone creates their own style in this modern day? Does legitimacy and lineage matter that much? I’d say, it depends. If you live in such a way that you are physically fighting people frequently, then yeah, actual fight training is needed. There’s a huge difference between martial arts training and fight training. For example, two different martial arts from the same origin have very different approaches to the their art. Aikijutsu and Aikido both come the same origin: Daitō Ryū (Great Eastern School) founded over 900 years ago. Generally speaking Aikijutsu tends to use combat ready techniques that are powerful and devastating. Aikido, founded by Morihei Uyeshiba, is more of a spiritual practice by design. It’s movements, like aikijutsu, are circular and fluid, but the circles are larger and thereby safer for the aikidoka. Although the techniques come from the same place, the focus of each is different.

This difference changes what the teachers are focused on in class. Are they faithfully transmitting the pure art form from its roots? Or are they teaching you how to fight? Are they doing both? I’d say that what a martial artist wants to get out of the style they are studying matters more than anything else. If you want to learn an ancient way of living, take a traditional martial art, if you want to strictly learn how to survive a street fight, take something like Krav Maga. Because the human body has a limited number of movements available, I find a lot crossover as I cross train in other styles. Ukemi (falling techniques) in Ninpo is very similar to ukemi in Krav Maga.

Joelle White, of A Beginner’s Journey, and I recently discussed lineage and legitimacy. Ninpo is kinda obscure in the martial arts, let alone in the general public knowledge. Because some foolish people making crazy claims about their “ninja” skills and 80’s ninja movies, ninpo, or ninjutsu, often gets a bad rap. Lots of people have lots of opinions on whether one can be a “ninja” in this day and age, or whether it’s an effective style. This gets to me once in while, and I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. During our discussion, she asked me if I was growing as a person, learning and being challenged, if I had to work for my next belt in each test and pointed out that lineage doesn’t matter a whole lot. That helped me set aside negative feelings I had at the moment and readjust my thinking on the matter.

All of this comes down to a very important point, before my ego gets away from me and behaves destructively towards other budoka (Way of War Practitioner) by ridiculing another style, or approach to self-defense, or philosophy I better be sure I understand the point of that style. Educating one’s self on other styles gives a more balanced approach to understanding what I am looking at and appreciating the beauty of the art itself. I highly recommend using one’s own critical thinking skills, and good information to make better judgements in general, but especially for marital artists.

For more on this topic I suggest you go over to the Stick Chick’s Blog and read her blog post Hammer World.

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast: The Learning Curve

Lately I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with a new white belt during class.  We are working through his first kyu (belt) level so he can complete his first test. Last night we were working on his punching and kicking techniques when Sensei came over to help my fellow student smooth out some parts of his punching technique.  He said to the student, “Slow is smooth.  Smooth is fast.”  Our instructor often says he would rather us take our time learning the technique and do it correctly than be fast and hard but doing the technique incorrectly.  Incorrect movement leads to injury, or being defeated.

Earlier this year, I was able to attend a seminar by Roy Goldberg Sensei, 7th Dan in Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu.  He was teaching us how to move in a way that was almost like not moving that produced an amazing finish.  It was like watching the tiniest atom bomb produce a world-ending explosion.  As I watched Goldberg Sensei demonstrate the technique and explain what he was doing with his body I was amazed at how smooth and barely perceptible his  movements were to my eyes.  I, of course, was clunky and using too much strength in my attempts to match his silkiness.  What he wanted us to accomplish seemed to be an awareness of our body movements and how to coordinate everything from the top of our head to the soles of our feet.  That felt like an impossible task at the time and I knew I would have to continue to train in this style if I wanted to achieve even the tiniest sliver of the kind of control he had.  Compared to his mastery I felt like a new born giraffe attempting to stand: all legs and no balance.  Goldberg Sensei is in his 70’s and has been practicing his art for many decades.  Smooth is fast was in play before my eyes.

I’ve been training in Ninpo Bugei for almost 3 years now.  I remember watching the black belts at the beginning of my training and feeling amazed at the effectiveness of their movement.  The end result of a throw seemed grander than the actual technique because the movements were so smooth. I am by no means a master of this art, but I have mastered some very basic things.  I find some of my movements are instinctual and habitual.  Some things are smoother than they were at my newborn giraffe stage of training.

Everything in life worth doing has a learning curve.  The above graphs show what the learning curve is like.  My experiences are probably more like the top graph, but feel like the second one. Whenever we start to learn a new thing, the initial attempts are bumbling and slow.  There’s no coordination, balance, or precision.  This is as it should be and where “slow is smooth” becomes a thing in training.  If I take the time to connect with my body via my thoughts, and really think about what I’m doing eventually the neural connections I need form between my body and brain.  I am creating coordination by practicing until the neural connections solidify and the synapses fire faster and faster. 

This is the learning curve.  Coordination, balance, and precision become second nature which results in smoothness.  I no longer have to think so hard about what I’m doing, it just happens and now “smooth is fast.”  Which leads to me to today’s encouragement:

Anyone can follow this principle no matter what they are learning.  Frustration tends to occur during the slow beginning for many people.  “This is taking too long,” “I’m so stupid,” “This is so HARD” enter our thoughts at this stage, and is where the greatest amount of mental gymnastics becomes essential.  Giving up too soon on the learning curve ensures failure.  Humans are super adaptable beings with an amazing ability to learn.  If we want to attain anything we must push into and work with slow is smooth until smooth is fast.  We must stay on and climb that learning curve until we reach mastery. 

Be patient with yourself and keep going, you’ll get there eventually.