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.

The Deluded: The Most Dangerous Enemy in the Martial Arts

During a TV show, the bad guys were discussing an upcoming event.  One of the bad guys made a comment about people who are deluded.  The other responded with something to the effect that we can’t let the deluded run the show.  Delusion happens to anyone and everyone.  The only ingredient needed is resolute faith in something no matter the actual evidence.  On an episode of Dr. Phil a woman said she was 1000% percent convinced that she was pregnant with multiple babies and had been pregnant for multiple years.  She even believed she had more than one uterus.  It didn’t matter if top notch OB/GYN’s did ultrasounds, blood work, or anything else that conventionally shows pregnancy.  She didn’t care about the evidence, she only believed what she wanted to believe.

In the martial arts delusion is an insidious snake.  I see, read, and hear about people getting into things that are pretty questionable.  “No touch” martial arts is right at the top of the list making the rest of us look like snake oil salesman.  Folks fight about what is real, and what is not real in forums, on Facebook and etc.  At the end of the day everyone looks the fool. Its an unfortunate side effect of the delusion.

Delusion in the martial arts can be silly, but also downright dangerous.  One’s ego can get in the way and make that person believe they are far more capable than they actually are in their skill.  Sketchiness in the effectiveness of technique could mean that a person’s skill in actually stopping an attack is questionable.  This means danger for the martial artist because if I don’t stop the knife headed towards my torso, I’m probably going to be very injured, or dead.  I once saw a video of a guy taking the knife-wielding psycho attacking him to the ground for grappling and ended up getting stabbed in the abdomen multiple times.  Clearly he was deluded into thinking he could handle the attacker with his (BJJ?) skills.

The most unfortunate part of this is that someone taught them to think like this.  I have on occasion watched people walk into the dojo with obvious ego problems, but most of the time when people walk into a school they really don’t know much and are starting from scratch.  Whatever they believe, they probably learned from their instructors.  Obviously avoiding delusion is an important martial skill.

How DOES one avoid delusion in their training?  Because delusion is grounded in believing things that aren’t true the greatest cure for delusion is humility.  Humility, for those who are unsure, is a “modest or low view of one’s own importance.” (Oxford American Dictionary).  Below is a list of ways to make an honest and true assessment of one’s skill and the effectiveness of technique.

  1.  Be comfortable with saying “I don’t know.”  It’s okay to admit to not having all of the answers, or knowing enough.  It’s in your best interest to be honest enough and say you need help from those that are more experienced.
  2. Question the effectiveness of a technique in a real world scenario.  So many techniques are passed down from ancient war methods that worked for certain scenarios but won’t necessarily work quite the same way in current times.  To be sure, we CAN learn distance, timing, and such by practicing ancient methods, but we have to realistic about wielding a modern version of an ancient weapon.  Will it stop someone? I suggest learning the technique as is AND seeing how to adjust and make it work for a real attack.
  3. Practice, practice, and practice.  Try different things, use different modern versions of a weapon (a han bo and a baseball bat can be used similarly), work with different body types and levels of strength.  I learned a lot about grappling by requesting various guys to grapple with me and make it difficult for me to get out of whatever pretzel shape they put me in.
  4. Bug the experts.  Look for people who have experienced real violence, who have a realistic view of the martial art they teach, ask questions.  Like, tons of questions.  Not the disrespectful kinds of questions, like “How could THAT possibly work??!!”  I’m talking about realizing you know nothing and asking questions that dig deeper into the actual technique.
  5. Pressure test yourself.  Sparring is an excellent way to see how well you know your techniques and your level of skill.

Keeping it real, staying humble and maintaining the mind of a student will keep you safer than you realize.

There’s More Than Meets the Eye: A Look at the Hidden Features of Martial Arts Training

You know, you should really check out The Stick Chick Blog.  She’s sassy, smart, and funny.  I really enjoy reading stuff by a martial artist who knows her stuff.  She practices Presas Arnis and Kobudo (Okinawan Weapons), very different from what I study in a lot of ways, but I find some of the themes she writes about translate over to any martial art style.

Last week she wrote a blog titled “The Myth of Wasted (Martial Arts) Time” that busted the myth that only certain styles of martial arts are worth pursuing.  Many people believe that if it isn’t usable on the streets, or sticks too closely to tradition it isn’t worth the time spent learning that style.  I’ve ready many online forum debates where a dude in one style poo pooed a dude in another style because second dude’s forms and katas weren’t practical in a street fight.

It IS sometimes true that what we learn is impractical in a street fight, it’s foolish to claim otherwise.  However, as I’ve learned some of what we are taught is not meant to work in a street fight, it’s meant to train us to move and think a certain way.  A lot of martial arts curriculum start with really basic stuff, like how to block a certain way, then add to this basic concept with each level.  In Ninpo, when we teach blocking, we start with a basic circular motion with a back fisted blow to the inside of the forearm close to the wrist.  As the student progresses, we advance closer and closer to the armpit.  Each advance down the arm teaches another (painful) location to strike for maximum effect.  When we teach parry blocks (from Classical Ju Jutsu), we simply teach a person to move their arm and hand outward to meet the opponents strike. Both have practical purposes in that they teach the student how to respond to threat.  But most importantly, these different methods of blocking are choices we can make in a fight depending on what is happening.  Not every blocking style is useful for every strike.  Much depends on the angle of the strike and body position.

I often train with the bokken, a wooden replica of a katana.  To be sure it is impractical, not to mention illegal, to carry a sword around in public.  Duels to the death just aren’t a thing anymore.  That doesn’t stop me from learning various strike patterns, stances, etiquette, and kata.  While learning to use the sword may seem useless, what does it give me in terms of an actual fight? It teaches me how to use any longish weapon like a stick, a baseball bat, or an umbrella to it’s greatest affect.  Etiquette and kata teaches me awareness, automatic response (sometimes muscle memory), and ways to effectively wield my weapon.  Some of the kata and strike patterns aren’t that effective in an actual duel, but that’s not the point.  The point is to provide me, the student, with an opportunity to practice the principles in Shuhari (守破離).   Shu is obey and protect the technique (learning the basics), Ha is detachment and digression from the technique (breaking with the traditions and basics), and Ri is separating or transcending the technique (the movements become natural and instinctual).  Eventually I will be able to transcend the kata and be able to make choices (click on link for another great blog by the Stick Chick on this exact topic) in the moment in how to respond to a threat.

If you are a martial artist and look down your nose at other martial arts as “ineffective” take a moment and reflect on what you learn.  Is it always useful to maximum effect?  Does every repeated training techniques actually help in a fight?  The answer is likely “no.”  Arrogance has no place in training no matter what you do or how you do it.  I suggest that we all take a moment and appreciate that each style is an art, and all arts have techniques that while only useful for certain kinds of art do add to the technique over all.

Desire, Will, and Morality: The Holy Trinity of Grit


My friend, bestie, twin and fellow homeschool mom, Evelyn was teaching our boys a portion of a high school writing course, One Year Adventure Novel.  This particular lesson was “someone to care about” which is generally the hero.  As I was sitting there watching the lesson and doing my duty as the TA/Lunch Lady, I saw the three elements of a hero we care about evolve on the whiteboard.  Desire, will, and morality are the three things we need to give to our heroes in stories. What makes them keep going in the face of danger? What give them determination and strength? What makes them relatable. We need to make them realistic and someone we relate to so we want to finish the story.  After all, why would we continue to watch shows like The Walking Dead if the hero’s weren’t like us?

As Evelyn wrote those three words on the white board, I was contemplating the subject of my next post, then the bulb lit up over my head. This holy trinity of words bring together the idea of grit- firmness of mind or spirit unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).  So, let’s examine each one and how they play into each other and form grit.


Desire is something we want or long for in life.  It’s a conscious yearning that propels us to take action and obtain the object of our desire.  Do you want to be a martial artist? The desire to train will propel you through the door of some school, put you in a gi, and on the mats.  Desire will justify what you will spend on gear, training, and other accoutrements.  Desire will eventually grow into passion given enough time, energy, and practice.

Will is one’s control over one’s own emotions and actions.  Once you’ve entered into what you desire, your will must kick in to keep you coming back, to push through the failures and hard moments.  Desire and will interplay and begin forming grit in a person’s psyche.  The desire to do something, coupled with the will to see it through helps us to not give up easily.  It takes strength of character to accept all that comes with trying a new thing and do it anyway, no matter how many times you fall on your backside.

Morality slides in from the side to glue desire and will together permanently.  It seems like an odd fellow in this group of concepts, but it is absolutely necessary to keep the whole shebang together.  Morality, in this sense, is one’s virtue, or code of ethics.  The difference between posers and the real thing is morality.  Both sets of people have desire and will, but morality? Not so much.  Morality will keep a person honest.  In other words, if a person of grit says they’re going to do something, they will.  A poser will say they’ll do something, but never show up because they lack the courage.

When installed, desire, will, and morality come together in an unbreakable bond.  They will move you forward and keep you going until you reach your goal.  Grit, much like the other kind (sand and gravel), is tough and strong withstanding the worst storms in life.  If you’re having trouble staying motivated, I suggest a systems check.  Is your morality wavering? Reassess what you believe and why.  Is your desire waning? What is it you believe about yourself and your activity?  And finally, is your will weakening? Confirm your goals to yourself thereby recommitting to see it through.

Be the person who does hard things.


The Most Important Martial Skill: Humility


The line between arrogance and confidence is very thin.  Once crossed the budoka becomes something I don’t want to encounter on the mats, or anywhere else for that matter.

Arrogance is a human problem.  We want to believe that we are (always) right, more skilled than others, or possess a quality that lords it over others. Arrogance shows up in various ways, such as being unteachable, or bragging about prowess.  In truth, arrogance is often a symptom of fear.  Facing the weakness of one’s body or mind is difficult and hard to admit.  Perhaps this because of what other people say to us about us, or perhaps one doesn’t want to be seen as weak and therefore vulnerable to attack.  Whatever the case, arrogance has no place in the dojo.

A confident person has no need to brag or puff up their knowledge in front of others.  Rather, a confident person can rest in their skills and knowledge with no doubts or fears.  Confidence is gained when one can measure their success against standards set by other people.  Generally, in the martial arts, this is in the form of belt tests and the like.  Then their true skills will shine through when needed without every saying a word.  Most people can spot someone with real skill versus a braggart.

The key component to confidence, and what makes a person that way as opposed to arrogance, is humility.  Among other things, humility is defined as a lack of false pride (a.k.a. arrogance).  Humility is characterized as being other focused, bending low to receive, serving others, and etc.  A humble person realizes some key things about their training: they don’t know everything, they have much to learn, and need guidance from experts to be their best.  This comes with allowing themselves to be molded, guided, and taught by another.  If one is too stiff-necked they miss out on the best parts of training.

Sure, it’s great to achieve things and move forward in training.  But let’s remember who helped us get there with grateful hearts.  When we martial artists are on the mats, let’s keep in mind our greatest skill so that we can get the greatest amount of training.

The Moral Center of Martial Arts: Emotions, Beliefs, and Spirituality.

When people talk about the martial arts, most of what I hear is how cool this move was, or that kick, or how flexible or physically skilled so and so was in their competition.  Training to hit, kick, take down, and otherwise incapacitate someone is the basic premise of martial arts.  Necessity being the mother of invention means she birthed warrior training, and for obvious reasons.

Every tradition has it’s own methods of combat and weapons use.  But, all of these styles come from the same need for an efficient way to harm or kill someone.  The key points of combat are the same in modern military training, find the most efficient way to take someone down.  Those of us who train in traditional arts, and are not necessarily in the military, are carrying on the essence of combat but without the actual maiming or killing (that is unless we are attacked and need to use our training in self-defense).  Rather, we are, or should be, focused on self-development.

Self-development mostly involves the inner person, our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs.  Sure, the body develops muscles and flexibility, but the mind develops new neural pathways with training.  I’d wager that 70 percent of any physical training takes place in the brain.

The samurai developed schools of training according to whatever the need was in their region.  Battles were primarily fought with katana and other swords, so hundreds of sword schools opened around Japan, some of which survived to today.  The need for hand-to-hand combat arose when swords broke and there was still an enemy to kill or subdue.  As these schools developed so did certain philosophies about life.  The samurai began to understand that there was a moral responsibility to not being merely efficient killing machines, they were human and desired peace above all else.

The samurai developed general moral codes to live by, ways to live above their physical skills in peace and harmony until such time that they had to battle for their lives, lords, and resources.  Otherwise, they could, and sometimes would, indiscriminately kill. Constructs like the Bushido Code, spirituality and and moral standards gave the warriors something else to focus on besides killing, or else they would just be violent people.

In the Karate Kid this conversation ensues during one of several training scenes:

Daniel: Hey – you ever get into fights when you were a kid?

Miyagi: Huh – plenty.

Daniel: Yeah, but it wasn’t like the problem I have, right?

Miyagi: Why? Fighting fighting. Same same.

Daniel: Yeah, but you knew karate.

Miyagi: Someone always know more.

Daniel: You mean there were times when you were scared to fight?

Miyagi: Always scare. Miyagi hate fighting.

Daniel: Yeah, but you like karate.

Miyagi: So?

Daniel: So, karate’s fighting. You train to fight.

Miyagi: That what you think?

Daniel: [pondering] No.

Miyagi: Then why train?

Daniel: [thinks] So I won’t have to fight.

Miyagi: [laughs] Miyagi have hope for you.

The idea of training to fight so one doesn’t have to fight has almost become a cliche in the martial arts.  But, just because it’s cliche doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  My sensei likes to occasionally ask us to think about why we train.  What are our moral reasons for doing so? If we don’t have any, then, he says we are just practicing violence.

Which brings me to my point.

In my experience, the greatest challenges of martial arts training is developing my inner life. Controlling my emotions to avoid a fight, finding compassion for other’s in my heart, pushing myself past my fears are the most essential parts of my training.  My spirituality is enhanced by my experiences, my feelings and beliefs have changed on account of the physical challenges presented to me each class.  I need grit and strength of character to do that which scares me week after week.  The combination of emotions, feelings, and spirituality help me get there.

My first challenge in my training was overcoming of my fear of falling.  To overcome I had to push through the dread in the pit of my belly, get to class, and keep trying.  I felt fear because I believed I would get seriously hurt.  I had to change my beliefs, trust in God that I wouldn’t hurt my body (especially since He called me there), and control my emotions enough to try.  Once the seeds of change begin to grow, the fruits show up in my interactions with people.  My compassion is stronger, my patience is longer, and my heart becomes purer over time.  Considering that I am not that special, I suspect that serious martial artists experience this phenom as well.

To conclude, the difference between a physically skilled, but violent, person, and a martial artist is their moral and spiritual center.  The reasons we train matter and make a huge difference in the use of violence in our lives.  Keeping our inclinations at bay through self control and offering the world the best version of ourselves is key to developing oneself as a complete warrior.

Questions for reflection:

Do you experience the emotional and spiritual effects of training? Has training changed your life in any significant way? If so, how? And, if not, what could you change to make a difference in side your mind?