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.

Calm Aggression: A Paradoxical Reality of the Martial Arts

I was working with a young girl who I knew struggled with being aggressive in her sparring.  It was just her and me for that particular class so I could slow things down and explain some concepts that she had not intuited yet in her training.  I mean, she’s pretty young, so this concept wouldn’t have occurred to her anyway.  Whenever she sparred with the other students she would get overwhelmed, particularly if one young boy was her partner and freeze in response. We talked about what it means to be aggressive, she gave me a list of definitions that were most centered on being physically aggressive, I added really going after something and a couple of other ideas to the list.  Then we talked about remaining calm while sparring and what that looked like.  I told her that she could be both calm, and aggressive, at the same time.  She was skeptical of that idea. Through a series of exercises I proved that it was possible, and apparently that was a game changer for her according to her dad.

At this point in my training, certain things have become instinctual so I barely think about them until I’m faced with a higher level of danger or commitment.  Being calm, but aggressive is one of those things. It dawned on me after class that being calm AND aggressive at the same time in the face of danger is a bit of a paradox.  The terms seem mutually exclusive and opposites.  How can one remain calm, yet be also aggressive during a fight, or sparring, or during testing?  

I explained it to the student like this: Calmness happens in the mind.  It comes from what we’re thinking about, and paying attention to during sparring.  If someone is wailing on us with blow after blow, it’s easy to get distracted and worried about what’s happening.  That fear response starts to kick in and panic takes over and the human response to fear is either fight, flight, or freeze.  Learning how to shortcut that system, or work with it, is essential to developing as a fighter or martial artist.  Calmness occurs when we learn to see what’s happening and not give into the urges that comes with the fear response.  Some call this bravery or courage, we’ve heard it quoted several times as “I’ve learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but triumph over it.  The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” ~ Nelson Mandela.  When faced with someone who intends to mow us down, the trained faces that challenge with bravery and calm.  Calmness feels like peacefulness, relaxation, and steadiness.  A calm person seems very tranquil and at ease.  

Being female, aggression isn’t something that comes naturally.  When I first stepped onto the mats, I was not the teensiest aggressive, or calm for that matter, for quite some time.  A couple of years into it, I learned about aggression during a grappling lesson.  I liked the person I was grappling with so I didn’t really want to hurt him.  I wasn’t angry, or afraid, but was tasked with prevailing, or least not tapping out.  I learned how to think “What a minute!! You can’t do that to ME!!” while I was twisted in a pretzel to find enough verve to fight back.  Mostly that energy resided in my gut, or hara.  As a side note, I’m currently studying kiai and kototama to understand what I missed in my last test (I got dinged a few points for my kiai being messy with the feedback that I need to own my kiai).  According to what I’ve read so far one’s kiai comes from the hara.  Aggression feels like pulsating energy that comes from my center out to my limbs.  My body feels wound up, my limbs tight and ready to explode with power at whatever I’m hitting. Just like kiai is an explosion of sound, aggression is an explosion of power and coming from the same place, they work in tandem.

Given the competing nature of calmness and aggression, how does one take both concepts and apply them simultaneously? I believe, mostly by experience, that calm aggression happens when the mind is clear and free of distraction and fear, but the hara is energized and ready to explode.  In the mind of the trained, the aggression stays where it is until called upon through the transfer of energy from hara to the rest of the body. In other words, the aggression is channeled and targeted.  It is a kind of finesse that one can find in training of this nature.  I find it difficult to kiai properly, and use aggression if my mind is all over the place.  I must trust myself, my training, and my instinct if I am going to be calmly aggressive.

Have you found yourself battling with either concept in training? How have you found a way to remain calm but use aggression?

Let me know in the comments below!