The Art of being a Thief
A little while ago, I was teaching a course for a friend of mine. After the class had finished, a young lad came over, thanked me for the session and then said something that caught me off guard. He uttered ‘So how are you so good?’ Being embarrassed by such a comment, I said something I had previously never said before, laughing ‘It’s because I am a good thief!’
That car journey home, I thought about what I had said. I hadn’t articulated the answer too much before uttering it, and it caught me off guard. The more I thought about what I had said however, the more I realised its truth.
The practice of the Martial Arts is quite interesting. It’s a little unlike the study of Mathematics or grammar where there are definitive answers. I suppose it is this that makes it an ART; as there is scope for personal perspective and an individual approach. Theoretically however, it could similarly be suggested that the Martial Arts should be practiced along scientific lines to ensure the fundamental principles of the art align themselves with FACT rather than theoretical, sci-fi mysticism. Whichever the side of coin you argue; it is nonetheless the truth that the Martial Arts prompt interesting debate due to the vast and wide array of perspectives out there.
In the Martial Arts, in each system or style, there is no definitive answer to any question. What one organisation teaches, another teaches differently. It gets even more complex than this however, for within one organisation or dojo, you can have two instructors teaching the same topic/technique/kata/concept but have different views and opinions about it. This means that there are vast opportunities for students to flourish, or fall down a set of pitfalls. I have seen many examples of both.
Many would suggest that the lack of uniformity of ALL shotokan karateka is a problem, and there is most definitely scope for this argument. There has even been suggestion from some that many organisations, specifically by those figures leading them, develop a line of thinking in order to differentiate themselves from the pack, in order to make their specific teaching an invaluable asset. Therefore you can only learn this newly developed, penned ‘innovative’ approach from this one specific instructor or group. Hence cha-ching….money rolls in. There is definitely a point to possibly be made here, but I prefer the less cynical outlook on this issue.
For me, innovative thinking and the development of new ideas is always a positive thing. If we look at what some would call a ‘traditional’ mindset - when it comes to development - , I would instead argue it’s simply a form of fear of change and being left behind. I remember teaching a course in Wales, and at the side was an instructor from a neighbouring dojo. As I taught, he turned to his student and said ‘I think he looks too deeply into karate’. I thought about his comment, but didn’t get too annoyed since I realised the angle from which he was coming from. He was a karateka that reached dan grade level, then started teaching and never developed beyond this. He is therefore a senior karateka practicing 1st dan karate, and therefore resented and was insecure of anything he didn’t know or understand fully himself. I forgave his ignorance. The reason I mention this story is that it clearly provides an example of the way some people shun innovative thinking and developments due to their own insecurity. I also feel very strongly about the idea of avoiding stagnancy. Sensei Funakoshi one said ‘Karate is like boiling water: if you do not keep the flame high, it turns tepid.’, and is right in the sense that karate will only improve if the body and thinking process remain engaged with it. This I think is essential.
So…coming back to being a thief. As there are no definitive answers, it leaves opportunity for a vast amount of personal enquiry and individual perspectives to be drawn. For many/most karateka they start in an organisation, have a training career spanning a varying amount of time, and then they finish or die. For many/most of these karateka, they start and end within this one organisation. I hope I don’t portray this to be a bad thing, if anything it could be reflective of the quality of that individual dojo or organisation. For such students, they are taught ONE way, with only slight – if any – outside influences. Therefore, you may be able to brand these people as pure pedigree students of that dojo or organisation. Personally however, I would class myself as a happy mongrel.
I started karate twenty years ago within the Karate Union of Wales – under the leadership of Chief Instructor Mike O’Brien 8th Dan. It was through the KUW that I had exposure to the likes of Dave Hazard 7th Dan and Aidan Trimble 7th Dan. When I was 18, I then left Wales and started travelling the UK training with anyone and everyone, gaining exposure with a vast array of different instructors including Akihito Isaka 8th Dan, Masao Kawasoe 8th Dan, Keigo Abe 9th Dan, Teruyuki Okazaki 10th Dan, Yoshiharu Osaka 8th Dan, Masao Kagawa 8th Dan, Steve Ubl 7th Dan, to name just a very small number in a very long list of both Japanese and Western karateka. I’ve had both limited and extensive exposure through training, discussion, and interviews with most of the world’s karate groups: JKA, SKIF, JKS, JSKA, WKF, KWF, ITKF, ISKF, KUGB, again to list a very small number in a very long list. Therefore, due to my travelling and my role within TSW, I have had a great deal of exposure with many groups and individuals. This means that I have picked up a lot of technical information along the way from instructors with different perspectives. In spite of training with all of these people however, I made the very firm decision when I was 17 that it was Sensei Hazard’s karate that I wanted to study and follow as my own. Nonetheless, I still learned a great deal from everyone that I have trained with.
At home, I have a bookshelf that is jam packed with Martial Art books and DVDs. Because of TSW, I get sent so much stuff to review, so I have been so lucky to build quite a nice library of material to reference. On the shelf however are a collection of note books that I have compiled since I was a child. These are, in written form, my karate life. They include notes from all of the books and DVDs I possess, they include notes and technical details from almost all sessions I have done with any significant instructor. Even more significantly however, they include all of my personal notes accumulated from my own study and training. Including things I have learned, discovered, figured out. It’s here where I kind of join the dots from what I have learned with different people.
In thinking about my karate career thus far, I would definitely consider myself a thief. I have taken bits of information from every instructor I have encountered, and used it in one capacity or another. On thought, I think about it in this way:
Employ or Discard
Therefore I take the information I am given, I evaluate its worth, and then either discard it or employ it in my training and teaching….but I always reference my sources. Therefore, I always provide credit to where I received this information. Nonetheless, my karate is a mix up of so many influences, embodied in me and my personal karate and teaching. For many however, doing this can be difficult as having all the differing opinions out there incorporated in your karate can cause confusion and a conflict of ideas. To avoid this here is my personal solution (Please note that this suggestion is aimed at Dan grades, not Kyu grades):
Initially, I think it is essential to find yourself a rooting, a base from which to proceed. Not a foundation that limits and restricts you, but one that gives you some kind of board from which you can bounce ideas against. Develop an established set of common ideas, from which you can then evaluate everything you are learning. The validity of new material you learn from different instructors will be questioned therefore against the set of rules you have in your foundation. For example:
- I follow the principles that you should NEVER pivot on the heels of the feet. This is a rule that applies to any directional movement. The reason for this is that by pivoting on the heel, you are pivoting on the skeletal structure, and balance and control CANNOT be maintained, especially if swept. Conversely, pivoting all the balls of the feet is effective as they are ‘soft, stable and supportive’
Now there are some groups out there that advocate such pivoting on the heels in certain circumstances, i.e. – JKA, JKS, WTKO to name a very small few. Therefore, due to my foundation, I am able to evaluate the validity of such an action. Does the fact I disagree with their approach discredit their karate? Of course not, it’s a personal choice of both of us. Therefore when I was encouraged to pivot on the heel when turning by certain instructors, that was one piece of technical information that I chose to not include in my karate. However:
- I believe it is essential to squeeze and relax appropriate muscles at the appropriate time in order to generate power and maximise speed.
Therefore, when I was taught by Taniyama Sensei to squeeze my inside legs together during zenkutsu-dachi, the approach and teaching methods he employed I would and have included in my study as it aligns itself with my foundation of knowledge.
In me writing in this way, it seems incredibly black and white. I don’t intend to make it seems quite so simplistic. Furthermore, by adopting the above idea, you must also be careful that your ‘foundational’ understanding does not overtly restrict or make you tunnel versioned, as what you have been taught MAY not be the BEST way as there are no definitive answers in the Martial Arts. Therefore, in evaluating my ‘foundational’ knowledge, I ask myself the following questions:
- Is this the healthiest way for the body to operate? (MOST IMPORTANT)
- Does this maximise the effectiveness of the intention? (the intention being the amount of power, the degree of relaxation in the body, the softness of the body, the level of speed etc. All where appropriate)
- Would it work and do its job?
Therefore, what I have learned is that discovery and developments lie not just in paying attention to what you agree with, but also with what you would disagree with. Within paying attention to the latter, you are able to gain a balanced perspective and it almost tests the validity of what you believe to be correct.
Within the Martial Arts, there is a culture of following the pack because you are told to do so. Within a certain capacity, adhering to the hierarchal structure of the dojo is imperative. Nonetheless, if someone says squeeze your hangetsu-dachi inwards until your knees are operating against the natural function, then there must come a point where you say to yourself ‘hang on a second, this can’t be right?’. If some senior said putting your hand in a pan of hot oil because it will test your spirit, would you do so quite so willingly? I imagine not, but it’s the same principle.
Coming back to what I had said to that young lad. Yes I agree that I am a karate thief. I have picked things up along the way from lots of different people and groups. I have taken bits, restructured it to my personality and set of ideas, I have taken this drill back to my dojo, taken that exercise back to my students, and from this, my own innovative thinking emerges. I suppose the purpose of this article was for me to discuss my approach to learning and evaluating the confusing array of different and contradictive teachings of all these instructors that at one point or another emerged from the same group. My approach is to be open minded, listen to everyone instead of speaking, evaluate everything you learn, ask questions both vocally and introspectively, and simply engulf yourself in the journey of stealing….because at the end of the day, you’re usually paying for it.
Get yourself a Karate ASBO and steal away.