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 Woman Warrior: What Does That Even MEAN?

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Tachibanna-hime fighting a dragon under a bridge

As you might’ve guessed, I’m a woman (10 Awesome Points for you if I didn’t need to tell you that).  And, I’m a martial artist which puts in the category of warrior (if you’re someone who believes that the term warrior is only reserved for people who have experienced actual combat, that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m interested in discussing mindsets. So, put your diatribe a side and just listen), because I’m training very closely to the ways ancient people did to fight each other in battles and wars.  Also, I’m philosophical so I like to think about things and find answers to my questions.  Questions like, I represent a minority in the martial arts, why is that so?  Why are many women not-so-inclined to become martial artists?  Is it too male? Too violent? Too… something? I’ve spent many hours researching the warrior mentality, what it means to be a martial artist as a woman, and etc.

Up until recent history, traditionally men were the warriors in many societies.  Modern politics aside, men are physically stronger and have more endurance than women so it makes sense that they would be the ones to fight wars.  A quick Google search on the how to be a warrior and such and almost all articles are for men.  I think I found maybe one article on women in combat and in police forces.

I know that some civilizations had women warriors. For example, archeological studies show that many of the burial sites for Vikings were actually women who fought alongside the men.  The ninja had females who were called kunoichi (くノ一).  These women infiltrated households as spies often posing as domestic help, sometimes using their sexuality to gain trust and extract information.   The samurai had the onna-bugeisha, samurai women who sometimes fought with the men and defended the home.  But, this seems to be against the norm, warrior hood was generally for men.

So, why are women underrepresented in combat oriented fields and activities that are typically male oriented when they have equal access to the same opportunities as men?  What does it mean to be a woman warrior in today’s society?  The only place I can go is to my own experiences and observations at this point.

In my martial arts group, most of the time I’m not treated especially differently by the men.  However, I do occasionally run into someone who doesn’t want to do a technique on me with any strength because they were raised “not to hurt women.”  Conversely I’ve had guys go a little rougher and say something like “I’m helping you by doing this with strength so you learn how to get out of it.” Or, I’ve been called “one of the guys” when I’m the only female in the group and I complain about penis talk.  I’ve been told that kunoichi are “special.”  No one has really explained why that was true.  Are we really special? I speculate that this means that kunoichi were a much smaller percentage of ninja than males.

These kinds of phenom leave me feeling a bit conflicted at times.  I don’t want to be treated differently, I want to be taken seriously, and I want to hold my own against those bigger and stronger than me.  But, I have to fight through fear, doubt, feeling left out, feeling “too” included, feeling like I have something to prove.  These problems don’t even scratch the surface of what it means to be a woman warrior.

Looking to the few examples we have in literature and the like, women warriors were fierce and a bit scary.  The Valkyrie were creatures feared by men in various prose, Wonder Woman is part god and nearly indestructible, the Amazon are fierce female warriors who mainly lived to fight battles in a brutal manner. In stories, it’s all well and good to create near super humans women to be effective warriors, but in real life that’s no so easy.  Eschewing the virtues of women to have what seems like men with boobs does real women who choose the warrior lifestyle a great disservice.

The main problems I think we have to overcome to be seen as legit warriors in our own right is our roles, function, and makeup.  Speaking in huge generalities, women are potential life-givers.  We bear the children and raise them, for the most part.  We nurture and grow ourselves, our families, and our resources.  We are focused on relationships, our emotions, and overcoming.  Men are generally singly focused on one thing at a time.  I’m guessing (because I’m not a man) this means when it’s time to fight, that’s what a man focuses on, when it’s time to work, fighting is put aside and work becomes the focus.  I can see this being an incredible asset for a warrior: singular focus on the task at hand, hell-bent on winning.  For women, I think our tendency to think about everything can get in the way of really going for it in battle.  We’d have to train ourselves to maintain a singular focus.  My emotions can be a distraction and slow me down.  I have to push past them and remember what I’m doing and why.  Maybe this is why women have a hard time thinking of themselves as martial artists: learning violence, going up against men, and generally being overwhelmed by the need for focus is intimidating.

I really haven’t settled on any particular reason for the difficulties that I face as female martial artist, but I hope I’m headed in the right direction.  I’m open to more ideas and discussion to get a rounder point of view.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

The Most Important Martial Skill: Humility

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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?

The Greatest Irony of Martial Arts (and Life): Failure, pain and loss as accurate measures of success.

This week in the dojo, both nights were what I call hard training.  I was thrown harder than normal (for me) to the mats, my limbs were twisted into painful pretzels, I acquired a few bruises, bumps, went through a round of sparring with five separate attacks I had to avoid or fend off.  I got hit in the face.  I was put in chokehold.  Another person had my face and body smashed into the mats.  By Thursday morning I was pretty sore and tired (My chiropractor had a field day with all of the loud CRACKS! my body was making).

This is what I call a successful week.  Sound crazy?  Maybe it is a little.  I learned, I grew, and now I’m writing about it.  See? Success!

I believe one of the greatest ironies of in life is how much we have to throw ourselves into something to find success.  Our willingness to fail, fall down, bleed, bruise, and generally feel pain is directly correlated our success in whatever we are called to do with life.

This is especially true in the martial arts.  One cannot learn how to land properly without actually let someone throw you.  Learning to avoid a punch requires someone aiming at a body part and occasionally landing a few hits.  Getting out of chokehold means you have to let someone get painfully close to cutting off your blood supply.  Hitting someone hurts.  If I do it wrong, it hurts like a mother.

Failure fits right into this scenario.  The more I try the more opportunities I have to fail.  The more I fail, the more likely I am to succeed.  Why? Because failure is a hallmark of learning.  If everyone were able to wake up knowing everything ever, we wouldn’t need teachers (or maybe we’d be in the Matrix).  No one ever succeeded in anything standing there and looking pretty.

When learning a martial art loss immediately takes up residence in the process.  In many cases the first thing to go is arrogance.  Arrogance creates an impenetrable wall into an empty brain. A good student knows that they know pretty much nothing and have everything to learn.  Learning to accept failure and pain as a part of training and life humbles the heart and makes the person malleable.

Allowing failure, loss, and pain to be our guide means we are trying.  Never giving up means one day success.

Are you a person with dream? Have you tried and failed a few times?  Did you stay down on the 7th fall?

Get up friend and try again!

Taking the Road Less Traveled (Part 2): Fear, Panic, Anxiety, and the Calming Effect of the Martial Arts

I remember sitting on my knees on the mats to the far left, Mark Sensei was beside me asking me what was stopping me from successfully executing ukemi (safely falling).  I had been at it for weeks by that point.  Fear stiffened my body, either preventing a decent roll, or stopping me altogether.  I had to keep going no matter what, but man oh man, was it difficult to push myself into this art.

I answered Mark Sensei with two words, “My thoughts.”  The wild nor’easter of fear gripping my mind was the only thing stopping me.  Anxiety, fear, and panic are realities I deal with daily.  Over the course of almost 28 years of recovery these things have lessened somewhat, but not nearly enough by November 2015 (from the previous post this is when I started Ninpo).  The child of an addict almost always grows up with a skewed sense of reality.  Not knowing what was coming next in the form of abuse left me in a constant state of anxiety.

By the time I was an adult, seeing life through panic colored glasses was my modus operandi.

The martial artist lives within a constant tension that comes from practicing violence for the sake of peace.  If I believe in the spirit of Budō (click here for a definition), learning to overcome oneself is the ultimate goal of practicing a martial art.  Nearly every level of technique and practice I’ve encountered fear is involved.  For the uke (receiver of the technique) to be a good training partner,  there must be a certain amount of willingness to receive pain.  When faced with a hard fall, one where my ukemi needs to be on point, my metaphorical knees tend to knock together. At this point I MUST overcome to be true to myself in my efforts to grow as a person.  I have failed at this a few times and I’ve spent hours unnecessarily beating myself up.  But, when I succeed and overcome my panic, the feeling of triumph is incredibly satisfying.

This is where the rubber meets the road in the grown up mind of an abused child.

It’s not easy to be thrown to the mats repeatedly by those bigger and stronger and get up and ask for more.  It’s not easy to face the tension of moving fast in a line up of ukemi practice knowing I could crash into someone else if I move incorrectly.  It’s not easy to receive hits and blocks that leave marks every week, so similar to marks left by adults who should have known better. Believing in myself enough to push through fear, panic, and anxiety and do what’s asked of me and then succeeding brings the confidence needed to calm the mind with truth.  The truth is, I can do these things because I’ve already succeeded.  The phrase “practice makes perfect” isn’t just about muscle memory, it’s about knowing that whatever one’s practicing can be done.

Practicing violence so I can be at peace seems like an impossible paradigm, but it works so well to calm the mind and spirit. I’m glad I stuck it out and eventually tested well for my ukemi belt test.  I’m so glad I’ve stayed the course and learned how to be knocked down and get up again.  I’m so thankful to those who’ve helped me so much along the way, who believed in me enough to help me keep coming back again and again.

Most of all, I am thankful to God for getting me through door to begin with.

 

Little hands, little feet, doesn’t mean you can’t be beat.

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People make a lot of assumptions about women.  Sure, we are smaller than men, and we have less muscle mass, but does that translate to automatically losing a fight? The short answer is “no.”  The long answer is “only if you’ve been trained and know what you’re doing.”

Unless we get involved in heavy lifting in the gym and become, we cannot match the strength of even a average sized man, so we have to find ways around this problem.  If a man gets a woman in a rear naked choke, it’s safe to assume she cannot muscle her way out that hold.  But, that doesn’t mean all is lost.

As you can see above, my hand is significantly smaller than my husband’s hand.  I cannot out do him in thumb wrestling, arm wrestling, or any kind wrestling for that matter.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  When trying certain techniques in the dojo, sometimes my hands are just to small to get a good grip on whatever body part I’m holding onto.  That can be frustrating when I’m trying for that tap out and my uke is just lying there saying “Twist my arm more.”

Geez guys, have you seen my tiny princess hand?

My training teaches me how to exploit weaknesses inherent in all human bodies (There are a very few exceptions to this, I know a guy who barely feels pain.  I can twist his wrist till the cows come and he’ll just be laying there smiling at me). This gives me an advantage I might not otherwise have if I was ever attacked in real life.  It’s surprising to me that so much pain can be produced with so little effort.

The concept of “work smarter, not harder” becomes handy to us smaller, weaker females when we know how to hurt you.  We can pinch, gouge, poke, prod, twist, strike, scratch, or whatever those places you didn’t know could hurt like that.  We don’t have to wrestle you to the ground, we don’t have to muscle our way out of a grab, we just have to know where to strike and how to make it hurt more.

It’s best not to make assumptions.