What The Karate Kid Taught Me Wrong

Don’t get me wrong–I think this movie is awesome. I’ve watched it more times than I can count, and I can count fairly high. I can quote every memorable line, and my philosophy towards martial arts–which, in turn, impacted my philosophy towards life–was largely developed from this movie.

But of course, Hollywood exaggerates and embellishes for the purpose of entertainment. Interestingly, the latest reincarnation of the franchise, the popular Netflix show Cobra Kai, revisits and qualifies a lot of these same myths while still maintaining the signature 80’s cheese and nostalgia of the original. Which myths the series propagates and which it contradicts is one of the most compelling aspects of the new show.

So what were the most significant martial arts legends created by the original movie that don’t apply to real training?

You Can Develop Skill By Doing Unrelated Things

“Wax on, wax off” became entrenched in pop culture as a method of learning to block by waxing cars, painting fences, sanding floors, and painting houses[1]. When Daniel-san finally has had enough manual labour, Mr. Miyagi does the big reveal–he has been learning Karate all along, and is now instinctively able to deflect a series of unscripted attacks[2].

It would be so cool if it worked in real life. So cool. Unfortunately it doesn’t.

You can’t learn to swim without getting into the water, and you can’t learn to block without lots of reps of someone attempting to hit you. If you’re learning correctly, you will occasionally get hit.

I think this myth has had an impact on people’s perception of the Uchi-Deshi (内弟子, a live-in disciple or student) concept. I’ve seen and heard multiple reports of Uchi-Deshi programs that seem to focus on the student’s sanitation skills rather than their martial ones.

Like many things, it depends on how this is done. If you are spending an intense period of time training day in and day out with an outstanding instructor, then it is probably worth it. If you’re spending large amounts of money to be a live-in maid and catch a couple classes here and there, you’re probably falling for a scam. If you spend more time vacuuming than learning, you might have gotten short-changed on your end of the bargain.

Again, in The Karate Kid world, Daniel’s chores were actually a secret form of training[3]. In reality, when someone says, “I’ll show you the secrets of Karate when you complete all these chores,” the chores are probably just menial labour.

I’ve travelled to train at other instructors’ schools, and of course it’s important to be grateful to your hosts. It’s good manners to clean up after yourself when you’re a houseguest. I might buy a gift for their house and maybe a bottle of wine, if my hosts are so inclined.

But I truly get the sense I would have been welcome to visit no matter whether I did the dishes or not, which is the true spirit of camaraderie in martial arts. Not everything should be done in expectation of reciprocity.

Mysterious Methods Are Better

A lot of Mr. Miyagi’s appeal is his mysterious nature and background[4]. East Asian culture, especially in regards to martial arts, tends to be mystified in mainstream media representations in North America, which is a distinct contrast to the far less exotic reality of physical violence.

For reality-based martial artists, there should be a lot more transparency in the learning process. A mantra that I learned from my instructor’s accreditation program for teaching English as a second language is, “Why are you doing what you’re doing the way that you’re doing it?” Both parties involved in the exchange of information and the development of skill should be able to articulate an answer to that question.

Outside the silver screen, less mysterious and more pragmatic methods of instruction will benefit the student every time.

Win The Tournament, Get The Girl, Walk Off Into The Sunset

Yeah, it was that easy—in 1980’s Hollywood. In the 21st Century, even the fictional Cobra Kai characters don’t have it so easy.

I was once a fly on the wall for an interesting conversation between a poet and editor, discussing the poet’s debut collection being released. The editor acknowledged that there would be some congratulations, some fanfare, perhaps even an award or nomination, but then, “Don’t expect it to change anything.”

Although I have very rarely competed in martial arts, those I know who have all say the same thing—it’s nice to be recognized if you win, get a medal, and have your picture taken, but it doesn’t change your life. The same is true for rank promotions and seminars. Little Johnny in the third row picking his nose and staring out the window on a Tuesday night doesn’t give any shits that Sensei just got his next Dan rank. He just wants to know when he can go home and play the next level of his video game.

As an instructor, pay extra attention to Little Johnny. If you don’t connect with him early, he might grow up to ride motorcycles, smoke weed, and pick on the new kid at school[5].

Good Guys Win

In Karate, it has long been asserted (optimistically to a fault) that a practitioner’s moral development and skill acquisition are inexorably linked to one another, such that, “No matter how you may excel in the art of Te or your scholastic endeavours, nothing is more important than your behaviour and your humanity as observed in daily life.”[6] Ethics aside, The Karate Kid reinforces the fallacy that if you’re a good person, you will be better at martial arts.

Daniel-san is a tool at the beginning of the movie[7]. He is an instigator, provoking conflict with his antagonists instead of turning the other cheek[8]. When he becomes a student of Mr. Miyagi, he learns the right and wrong way of applying his skills, learning to fight “so [he] won’t have to fight.”[9] Funny enough, for the purpose of plot development in Cobra Kai, he seems to have forgotten many of those life lessons and regressed back to the original model.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where human beings received material reward for moral behaviour, but we don’t. In martial arts, the fairest and most sportsmanlike competitors are not often the ones who come out on top. It’s a crap shoot. I’m sure there are altruistic CEOs and lottery winners too, but the distribution is far too even for it to be a cause-and-effect relationship.

So, if you’re setting out to be a good person in this dog-eat-dog world, good for you! Don’t expect the universe to reward you for it. You can try your best and do things the right way, but sometimes at the end of the practice, coach will still turn to you and say, “Great hustle, kid. You’re cut.”

This is another aspect that Cobra Kai has revisited and modified, adding a lot more grey area to the original movie’s black and white characters.


Like many things that are meant to inspire and entertain, The Karate Kid shouldn’t be taken literally. Watching a video recording of actual Karate, even when it’s practiced with effective methodology, may not appeal to many (Zoom lesson? Anyone? How about I teach these crickets?).

However, despite the myths that the movie perpetuates, it captures the right essence of practice—especially the way Karate can be a lens through which all aspects of your life are seen as a pathway towards self-improvement.

Remember to focus on the forest, rather than the trees that have been Hollywood-enhanced for your viewing pleasure.

[1] The Karate Kid. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Columbia Pictures, 1984.

[2] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[3] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[4] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[5] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[6] McCarthy, Patrick (editor). Tanpenshu: The Untold Stories of Gichin Funakoshi. International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, 2006. Pg. 122.

Nagamine, Shoshin. The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do. Tuttle Publications, 1976. Pg. 20

[7] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[8] The Karate Kid, 1984.

[9] The Karate Kid, 1984.

Why I Don’t Have a Cell Phone

You can view it as a personality quirk, a protest against the establishment, an annoying denial of the era we live in, or a symptom of insanity, but I don’t own–and have never owned–a cell phone.

This fact alone puts me in a distinct category, especially considering my age. Most holdouts from the mobile-toting trend have several decades more life experience than me. As a millennial (technically–but I resent my generation, so that redeems everything), choosing not to waste my time and money on a cellular device is a social statement as much as it is an eccentricity that inconveniences my friends and family members alike.

As such, I thought it was time that I articulate exactly why I haven’t given in to the “necessity” of cell phone ownership.


Before I justify what many consider an untenable position, let me begin by addressing a few of the common questions that people usually ask once they have recovered from the shock and dismay of learning the truth.

Q: How do you navigate?

A: If I’m travelling alone, I look up where I’m going (online–I’m not a caveman), memorize or write it down, and then follow those directions to my destination. Yes, it requires use of my brain, but failing that, there used to be things called maps, remember?


Q: What do you do in case of emergency?

A: Fair point. Luckily I haven’t had any, but previous generations relied on good Samaritans to not screw them over. Cars broke down for a solid century before cell phones became commonplace. I like wearing ties and fedoras, so I look inherently trustworthy.

Q: How do you contact your friends?

A: Mostly through Facebook Messenger. I have to make some concessions. I got a Facebook account because one of my friends made it for me and gave me the password. Otherwise, I’d still be using smoke signals. In terms of social plans, I am the old fashioned sort–date, time, location, show up.

Q: What do you do if you’re running late?

A: I’m not. I’m habitually early for everything, so if I’m delayed, I’m just on time.

Q: How does your wife know where you are?

A: I’m probably the most routine-oriented (read: predictable and boring) person you’ll ever meet. Give her a day of the week and a time, and my wife can name exactly where I would be.

Q: Why!?!

A: Hold onto your fedora.

Ludditism is Genetic

I fall into the category of a Luddite, someone who doesn’t believe in adopting the usage of newfangled technology, though I acknowledge its utility. However, I have to admit that some of my reluctance was influenced by my upbringing.

One of the first disputes I remember my parents having was about whether our rotary phone needed to be upgraded or not. The cottage where I’m writing this from is still equipped with a party line and a rotary phone, which is a hilarious source of entertainment when friends visit and have to figure out how to use it.

Oh, to be young and ignorant.

My mom briefly had a pay-as-you-go cell for “just in case” purposes, but otherwise none of my grandparents or parents ever had one. We got a home computer when it was needed for school assignments. We used to rent a VCR on special occasions like birthdays so we could watch a movie at home.

In short, technology was never a major part of our lifestyle. It was mostly associated with work or school–intrusive things that restricted the time we spent actually living.

That has changed, to a degree. Netflix and blue rays are part of family R&R (aside from the cottage, which is still a screen-free zone, i.e. a real vacation), but growing up with limits on how technology was used, and learning that happiness wasn’t associated with the newest device, was important in establishing my attitude towards it today.

Efficiency is not Quality

I enjoy meaningful conversation and discussion. It doesn’t need to be on a profound topic, or an attempt to unravel the mysteries of life, but I enjoy talking to intelligent and insightful people who challenge my assumptions. This can be done through text (of course–I’m a writer), but it is more personal and more intimate done face-to-face.

In our busy lifestyle, we text because we think it saves time, but I find it often leads to deeper miscommunication, and then the need to clarify and contextualize more. Twenty minutes of messages can usually be replaced by two minutes of actual conversation, with the result being more stimulation and greater transparency.

Interestingly as well, at the risk of descending into the anarchy of footnotes and internet scholarship, rates of depression, anxiety, and ADHD have spiked in the years since smart phone and social media use became ubiquitous. Correlation does not prove causation; however, based on this trend, I think it is difficult to argue that these devices are improving our connections to fellow human beings.

Do One Thing At A Time

Human beings suck at “multitasking” (a misnomer: we actually “task-switch”). It’s just a question of how much we want to suck at it.

Growing up in martial arts had a profound influence on who I’ve become as an adult, influencing my work ethic and personal philosophy in myriad ways. At the start of every class, the practice of zazen (sitting meditation) is supposed to allow a practitioner to clear away all sense of distraction, disregard regret, procrastination, and anxiety, and stay in the moment, your entire being consumed only with the task at hand for the duration of training.

It is an aspiration that I routinely fail at–but worth pursuing nonetheless. This attempt also influences all my endeavours: I try to focus on doing one thing to the best of my ability, before moving to the next. This includes moments with people, too. I try not to split my concentration, to be grounded and attentive, even if we’re just chatting about the weather.

I’m far from perfect. My brain is certainly consumed by the future, the past, and what might be unfolding elsewhere just like anyone. However, not having a cell phone puts me miles ahead of where I would be with the distraction-machine in my hand.

Funny enough, I don’t really mind when my friends or family members check their phones or text while I’m around–providing it’s a relatively brief intrusion. Social norms are changing, of course, but it is generally still held to be rude to use your phone when interacting with a stranger or acquaintance, so when someone is comfortable doing this in my presence, it is a symptom of closeness. I take it as a compliment.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the ironic corollary to this: we are increasingly growing comfortable neglecting the people we claim to have the deepest and most meaningful connections to.

Teach People How to Treat You

If you are one of those people who are always connected, your social circle will learn quickly to expect an immediate response when they contact you. Mine has learned the opposite: I’ll get around to it, but when I’m free. It’s not an insult, it’s a fact–I’m doing something else, and I’ll respond when I have the ability to give you my undivided attention.

Personally, I don’t like the notion of being at the beck and call of anyone who has my phone number. I like having the luxury of prioritizing my communication, with the people physically in the room with me being number one.


For the people who I’ve maintained close relationships with, I’m sure this is comparably difficult–and yes, I have purposely made it that way. However, it is not a test of anyone’s willingness to accommodate an unusual quirk, nor a way of defining the criteria for me to reciprocate a friendship. It is simply a way of ensuring that my lifestyle aligns with my values.

A cell phone is merely a tool, and like any other, it can be used well, badly, or–the most likely for our flawed species–some combination of the two. There may be a time when I have to give in, kicking and screaming, to the world’s expectation that I am constantly connected to the rest of the chaos.

On that day, despite having lost a unique tidbit that separates me from the crowd, I hope at least to be someone who controls the usage of this wonderful mind-numbingly stupid device, rather than having it control me.

The Self-Promotion Paradox

We live in an era of rampant narcissism. The word “selfie” has ingrained itself in our lexicon, our social media feeds are full of celebrities with no discernible talent except egotism, and both mainstream sensationalist media and the average consumer have to scream over one another to get anybody to listen.

I hate it–and I’m the problem.

Both of my passions, martial arts and creative writing, face the same dilemma. If you don’t promote yourself, then who will?

We post pictures or videos ironically with the disclaimer, “Sorry for the shameless self-promotion.” Of course, if we were actually sorry, we wouldn’t publish the post. Yet it is increasingly acceptable to stand at the top of a building and sing your own praises to anyone who will listen. Everyone I know who is considered successful in their own field has, at some point, blatantly advocated for themselves.

We all have our own agendas behind our “brand.” We also all have egos that feel rewarded when we get recognition within our cliques and communities. We all feel as though it is justified to self-promote–because we are right and everybody else is wrong.

So how do you know if you’re fighting the good fight for truth and righteousness, or if you’re one of the bullshit artists endlessly clamouring for another like or share?

Full disclosure: of course, I check my blog stats more often than I should. And, sadly, the results do affect my self-esteem. I already told you, I’m part of the problem.

Discussion vs. Doctrine

One thing that occurs to me is that there is a difference between promoting discussion within your community rather than promoting a doctrine that you want people to subscribe to. Disagreement is far more interesting than universal agreement. Preaching to the choir doesn’t get you noticed, and eventually the choir is going to stop listening.

A lot of my most successful posts have expressed opinions that, even five years ago, my past self would have fought vehemently against. It’s a sign of growth and development, but also a conversation between my past, current, and future selves. I genuinely hope that I look back at these posts in the future and feel embarrassed. This is a process, and it’s one that I want to share with my colleagues and friends to see how their paths are evolving along the same or different lines.

Discussion can go off topic, digress into anecdote, influence old beliefs, and create new ones. Doctrine is static, defined, and boring. Doctrine may earn a like, but never a comment.

Principles or Personalities?

Through self-promotion, are you putting something valuable into the universe, or simply asking for recognition to satisfy your own ego? The answer, of course, is yes. It’s hard to tell the difference, but Bushi Matsumura put it like this: “To all those whose progress remains hampered by ego-related distractions let humility, the spiritual cornerstone upon which the fighting traditions rest, serve to remind you to place virtue ahead of vice, values ahead of vanity and principles ahead of personalities.”[i]

Perhaps this is the difference between self-promotion as an act of selfishness and self-promotion as an act of altruism. Is there an enduring message that goes beyond your own personal agenda? Does that message align with greater ideals that transcend your own flawed perspective and say something greater about the human experience? Will your sentiments echo and be recognized by others as articulating something they have felt, but haven’t put into words?

Then again, maybe this is too much to ask. Maybe a selfie is just a goddamn selfie.

Solipsism for the Win!

Solipsism is the philosophy that we only definitively know that the self exists; the rest of the universe may be in our imagination. The corollary is that we are bound by our own perspectives. We can’t really see another person’s point of view, because we are biased by being who we are.

We promote ourselves because we recognize the inherent value in our own ideas and opinions, even when no one else does. Social media is dangerous because it reinforces this through confirmation bias. It feeds content only to people who are already inclined to agree with it.

So really, we are just in an echo chamber, screaming over our own reverberations in the hope that someone will notice and acknowledge us. Is there a solution?

Allow for silence. Take a break. Become a minimalist in terms of posts and self-promotion. Follow the “less is more” philosophy. Speak only when you feel compelled to. Do it better than me.

In the words of the Bubishi, “An empty vessel makes the most noise.”[ii]

[i] McCarthy, Patrick. “Beyond Physical Training.” International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Blog. <http://irkrs.blogspot.com/2013/12/beyond-physical-training.html> 1994.

[ii] McCarthy, Patrick (Trans.) Bubishi: The Bible of Karate. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 67.

Work After Covid

There is a lot of speculation at present about how long the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will last. Many of us have had the realities of our employment instantly change, with remote work becoming the temporary norm rather than the exception. A lot of experts theorize that this may become the “new normal.” It seems clear that when all industries begin to re-open, they won’t immediately return to “business as usual.”

The good news is that what is normal has always been in flux. My mother recounted that, upon entering the workforce in the 1970s, sexual harassment was considered an inevitable aspect of employment. It simply had to be tolerated. Obviously this issue still exists, but it is not nearly as overt and acceptable as it was a mere generation ago.

Coming out of the pandemic, there are certain lessons to be learned in our approaches to work. Teaching remotely has forced me to utilize some tools that, frankly, I should have begun using years ago. I hope that these adaptations will be permanent improvements, not just done out of necessity until the pandemic passes.

With that in mind, I am hopeful that management will also be progressive in their approaches to how they handle employees’ future work. One of the old school mindsets that I would love to see go the way of the Dodo bird is that time is an effective measurement of an employee’s work.

During the industrial revolution, I could certainly see the value of measuring the number of hours an employee put in. In certain jobs, such as factory work, time is still definitively connected to productivity. However, increasingly our productivity and the time we spend working are two completely distinct categories.

I understand that there is a need to hold employees accountable. Some people are undoubtedly using “work from home” as an excuse to take a vacation. Workers need to earn their pay, whether at home or in an office. However, in monitoring employee performance, I feel like companies are focusing on the wrong thing—duration instead of results. This may be a consequence of the traditional model of pay that is based on an hourly rate rather than a yearly salary.

Every writer knows that the amount of time you spend writing (or attempting to write, in the vicious case of writer’s block) is in no way correlated with the quantity or, more importantly, quality of what you produce. I believe most 21st Century jobs are very similar. You can spend hours and hours working in order to fulfill your contractual obligation, but that is no guarantee of having succeeded in your role.

Like most employees who recently began working from home, I am required to send a Tracking Form each week to report what I did and how much time I spent working. Funny enough, if we were together in the same physical workspace, I would never need to justify my productivity, though my work process is no more transparent at the office than it is at home. Mere presence is enough to make everyone assume that things are getting done. The truth is that it would be far easier to waste time if we were working “normally.”

Many years ago, a poet friend of mine told me that human beings in hunter-gatherer societies were required to work approximately three hours per day to maintain their shelter and find food. This claim may be an oversimplification, not accounting for seasonal variations or activities that blur the line between leisure and work[1], but current trends are not all that different. Studies have shown that the average employee, no matter how long they sit in an office, is productive for less than three hours a day[2]. This supports the notion that companies should be tracking our effectiveness, not our time.

I understand that schedules are important. As an instructor, whether done in a physical classroom or a virtual platform, the students and teacher need to be together. However, I could hold my students captive for five hours a day and not accomplish anything, just giving them menial tasks. We’ve all been in classrooms where the instructor endlessly distributes useless crosswords, matching exercises and fill in the blanks activities, or just puts on a movie because they are too lazy to do anything else. The duration of a lesson is a poor indicator of its vibrancy or impact.

One of the items in my teaching philosophy is, “My foot is always on the gas, not the brakes.” It’s a promise to my students that I will not waste their time. I take that promise seriously. Stretching out a lesson that has been poignant, motivating, and dynamic for an extra fifteen minutes can undermine the positivity of what was already accomplished.

I recently attended a PD event about working remotely, in which one of the suggestions to avoid the distractions surrounding you at home was to list the things that distract you, then list easy and productive things you should be doing instead, and then to do the productive things. In other words, when you’re distracted, stop being distracted and do more work. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t be distracted in the first place.

On resumes and job postings, we always talk about “time management.” Why don’t we talk about “productivity management”? You can force yourself to sit at a computer screen with nine windows open and push through your exhaustion to produce something coherent, sure. But if it’s not something that’s urgent, why not leave it for a day when you’re in the right mindset to excel?

Part of emotional intelligence is managing your motivation. Especially now, when we lack social contact and have terrible anxieties about the future, we are not always going to be motivated. Recognizing that you are not in the right frame of mind to be productive should be rewarded, not punished. Mandating an employee to work under those circumstances might get them to produce something, but it will probably be garbage.

As working from home becomes increasingly common and acceptable—possibly for the long haul—I would urge companies and managers to stop scrutinizing the amount of time an employee spends at a desk and start evaluating the quality of what they have produced. More importantly, if an employee who is usually highly motivated has gone quiet, check to see how they are feeling and make sure they are okay. If you want to keep outstanding people on your team, take Donn Draper’s advice by “letting [your] creatives be unproductive, until they are.”[3]

[1] Godesky, Jason. “Hunter-gatherers have more leisure time.” http://www.rewild.com/in-depth/leisure.html.

[2] “How Many Productive Hours in a Work Day? Just 2 Hours, 23 Minutes . . .” https://www.vouchercloud.com/resources/office-worker-productivity

Brierly, Ester. “The Average Worker is Only Productive for About Three Hours a Day.” https://consciouscompanymedia.com/workplace-culture/the-average-worker-is-only-productive-for-about-3-hours-a-day/

[3] “The Fog,” Mad Men. Directed by Phil Abraham. Lionsgate Television, 2009.

Is Your Dojo a Cult?

Martial arts[1] can be—and to some extent, should be—an intense experience, provoking strong emotions, fierce loyalty, and dedication to ideals that transcend just the era of your practice. This atmosphere of strict discipline and devotion, especially coupled with the well-defined hierarchy of traditional Budo, can be a potential trap for lost individuals to come looking for one thing (i.e. martial arts) and end up buying into another (i.e. a cult).

One of the reasons people pursue martial arts to begin with is for the sake of their health, but people often forget that health is more than just physical. Pursued with the right mindset, martial arts can benefit emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual health—just think of all the parents who bring their children into the Dojo in hopes of increasing their “confidence” or “discipline.” Likewise, when power structures are manipulated consciously or unconsciously in a cultish way, martial arts can be just as detrimental to all those facets of personal development.

So what are the telltale indicators that when you signed up on the dotted line, you got more than you bargained for?

The Instructor (Sensei/Sifu/Kru/Sabom/Professor) is Deified:

It is acknowledged in the fine print of martial arts history books that the stories about the masters of old are embellished to elevate their legacy[2]. Therefore, stories of leaping huge walls in a single bound[3], crushing bamboo stalks with bare hands[4], wrestling a bull to the ground by its horns[5], and—my favourite—actual levitation[6] are meant to be taken with a grain of salt.

What about your own instructor? Are there rumours of unbelievable (literally impossible to believe) physical feats that no one has actually seen? Are there whispers of secret techniques that “one day,” when you’re advanced enough, Sensei will share with you?

Your instructor is supposed to be technically superior, or at least able to guide your own skill development in the right direction; that’s why you learn from him or her. However, your instructor should also be allowed to exhibit the limitations inherent in the human condition.

There is Actual Magic:

No-touch knockouts, techniques that rely on Ki, and techniques where multiple assailants fall like dominos are signs you’re studying fantasy, not martial arts. If the mechanism that makes something work is not defined by physics, then it is not a legitimate method.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It is quite user-friendly for someone like myself who hasn’t studied physics since high school.

This is not a new idea; Matsumura Sokon articulated it long ago like this: “To all those whose progress remains hampered by ego-related distractions let humility, the spiritual cornerstone upon which the fighting traditions rest, serve to remind you to place virtue ahead of vice, values ahead of vanity and principles ahead of personalities.”[7]

This is why pressure-testing skills within the Dojo is so important. A highly skilled practitioner should be able to make techniques work most of the time against pretty much any novice, with the caveat that large differences in strength and stature will affect the application of techniques. This is why most competitive formats have both skill divisions and weight classes.

If the methods taught only work against particular hand-picked students (I’m tempted to say “followers”), then it doesn’t work. Instructors of no-touch knockouts or techniques where Ki is used to freeze or thrown an opponent have had no documented success executing these against random people. However, on their own brainwashed students, the placebo effect is so strong it works virtually every time. Losing touch with reality is a definite sign of a cult.

Weird Social Behaviour:

To the casual observer, a lot of the rituals and etiquette of the Dojo look bizarre—the excessive amounts of bowing, the highly ritualized entrance and exit to class, the strict ranking hierarchies, the titles used to address instructors, seniors, or peers, and the white pajamas. All of these are derived from traditional Japanese cultural practices, and maintaining these practices is simply a way of paying homage to the origins of the art.

In the context of Budo, these practices are consistent. I have noticed, however, that in certain clubs, these rituals are extended far beyond the Dojo and impact all aspects of social etiquette in other contexts.

One such example was a group dinner for a seminar. We were all enjoying a nice meal and the opportunity to socialize in a more casual environment. When the night was wrapping up, the instructor of a group who was well represented decided it was time to leave. The entire club lined up behind him and, one-by-one, executed a weird bow/secret handshake (left hand under right elbow—who shakes hands that way!?!) with the seminar instructor. In any context other than martial arts, that behaviour would be inexplicable. It’s not how you say goodnight at a restaurant in North America. However, we often use tradition as an excuse for wildly inappropriate social conduct.

I think that outside the physical confines of the Dojo itself, following Japanese social conventions only makes sense if you are in Japan. Otherwise, it’s probably a good idea to follow the normal conventions of the country you’re living in. Bowing when you run into your Senpai at the mall is just awkward.

A lot of people use the Dojo as a form of escapism from the breakneck pace and stress of modern life, a reprieve from their own mundane realities and an opportunity to delve into a seemingly exotic and mystical subculture. However, extending the etiquette of this microcosm of Japanese culture to other facets of society—and expecting others to adapt to it—is extremely cultish.

I recently posited this belief (and likely offended at least one person—whoops) about the use of the term “Sensei” as well. Now, if the person is your instructor and your primary relationship with them is through Budo, then it makes sense to use the term—just as if you see your university professor on the subway, you’re probably going to refer to them as “professor,” or if you see your physician at the park, you’ll probably call them “doctor.” We use professional terms for people we know from a professional environment because we don’t have a personal relationship with them. While you’re in the Dojo, no matter what, you should follow the conventions of the context and use “Sensei” when addressing your instructor.

However, when you are a close personal friend, or a family member, it’s weird to use the term “Sensei” in other contexts. We have a long-standing tradition of going out for wings and beer after our Friday night classes. At a table full of friends, it seems inappropriate to throw around “Sensei,” “Senpai,” “Kohai,” “Mr./Mrs.,” or whatever the appropriate “in the Dojo” term would be.

I’ve celebrated birthdays, New Years, weddings (including marrying my lovely wife, whom I first met in the Dojo), and various other occasions with people who my first connection with was martial arts. During these events, we’re not in an instructor/student relationship—we’re friends. In those social contexts, if someone insists on following Dojo etiquette, then it’s a warning sign that they may be asking you to drink the Kool-aide at some point in the future.

Unreasonable Limitations:

Discipline is inherent in martial arts, if for no other reason than you have to train your ass off consistently for a long time to stop sucking (or to suck less). Discipline is all about limitations, but these limitations have a purpose. Unlimited freedom is not a good thing—it gives us the ability to perpetually make decisions that we know are bad.

In the Dojo, the instructor often has to restrict their students, but it should be done for the purpose of growth and development. The teacher’s experience should provide perspective on what training habits should and should not be indulged—a perspective that the student may not have yet. However, when the restrictions placed on someone are way beyond the scope of altruism, the only explanation is that the instructor is trying to control the individual in question.

One mind-blowing example of this was when a friend of mine opened his own Dojo under an umbrella organization, but was told he couldn’t use any form of digital media for promotion. What 21st Century small business doesn’t have a presence on the Internet? Restricted to only print media, trying to establish a new martial arts school is extremely challenging, bordering on impossible.

This policy can’t be about business, so it must be about keeping school owners under the thumb of the organization.

No Outside Social Ties

For those of us who spend a lot of our free time and energy engaged in martial arts, it is natural that bonds will develop to those in our proximity. The experience lends itself to loyalty and trust. As a result, friendships naturally evolve over time.

However, when these bonds develop to the exclusion of social ties outside of martial arts, it is cause for concern. If your entire social life is premised around friends from the Dojo, what happens if there’s a falling out?

In previous posts, I’ve written about the shortcomings of martial artists. Unfortunately, estrangement from organizations and individuals is commonplace, like within any family. Although it’s never happened to me, a number of my martial arts colleagues have parted ways with teachers, students, and clubs on very bad terms. If these people were your entire social world in addition to your martial arts community, that puts you in a very precarious position.

It is healthy to foster relationships in different social circles. For those closest to you, the spheres will probably overlap with one another, but if one sphere is subtly (or in some cases, not so much) trying to push away the “outsiders” who “don’t belong with us,” then I would be very suspicious that you are being indoctrinated into a cult rather than a martial arts community.


Especially now, when most martial arts schools are at a halt, it is important to reflect on your current club and determine whether it is enabling or impeding your individual growth. Whenever there is power, there will be some who, whether consciously or unconsciously, seek to abuse it. (Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”) The rigid hierarchy, exoticism, and romantic myths in the public perception of martial arts make them particularly susceptible to cult-like behaviours and attitudes.

Practiced correctly, martial arts serve to empower and fulfill; practiced incorrectly, they sadly serve to control, oppress, and indoctrinate. Unfortunately, it is only in the inevitable falling out that the true nature of these relationships becomes clear. Victims of this kind of abuse are often too embarrassed, ashamed, or traumatized to discuss how they were taken advantage of, which can lead to long-term issues with self-esteem and trust. Many former members of cults disguised as martial arts clubs end up quitting their training entirely because of the association with their past experiences.

To avoid this, it is important to scrutinize the power dynamics at play in your martial arts atmosphere. Does the hierarchy serve a functional purpose? Is authority in place to lead others, or to hold others down as a pedestal for someone to stand on? Are people (regardless of rank or skill) respected as individuals, not only martial artists? The answers to these questions tell you what kind of club you have joined, what kind of leader is at its helm, and whether it is a good idea to slowly back out of the room.

[1] In this blog post, as in others, I use the term “martial arts” because it is the term generally used in mainstream culture. Some traditions, such as Karate, are technically not martial arts, as they were never practiced by the military. The term “fighting arts” is more accurate, though not as common in colloquial usage.

[2] Nagamine, Shoshin. Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters. Trans. Patrick McCarthy. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. Pg. xvi.

Funakoshi, Gichin. “Speaking About Karatedo.” Tanpenshu. Trans. Patrick McCarthy. International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, 2006. Pg. 63-64.

[3] Nagamine, 2000. Pg. 2, 4.

Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles, and Secret Techniques. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 45.

[4] Funakoshi, Gichin. Karatedo: My Way of Life. Kodansha International, 1975. Pg. 10.

Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 64.

[5] Clayton, Bruce. Shotokan’s Secret. Ohara Publications, 2004.

[6] Bishop, 1999. Pg. 45.

[7] McCarthy, Patrick. “Beyond Physical Training.” International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Blog. <http://irkrs.blogspot.com/2013/12/beyond-physical-training.html> 1994.

Shaolin: The Legend and Lies

Despite the various purposes they serve in modern society, the martial arts first developed out of necessity. Personal safety has never been a guarantee, and so those who felt a pressing need to overcome the threats they faced within their society created systems of addressing the problems they were likely to encounter. In East Asia, myriad fighting traditions influenced one another and adapted to fit each country’s societal and social context. The oldest documented martial arts in this region developed in China, the country which, by all accounts, was linguistically, culturally, and economically more advanced.

In many ways, China was the dominant cultural force in East Asia during this historical period, and not just where Okinawa was concerned. It is generally held that “The Japanese, Chinese, Okinawan and Korean peoples share a deep respect for ancient Chinese culture.”[1] Okinawans in particular are said to have a respect for “anything Chinese”[2], and so “Anything that reflected a Chinese influence would have been highly regarded and recognized as advanced.”[3] It is a widely held belief that “Okinawans hold all things Chinese in high esteem.”[4] As a result, Chinese education, art, and fighting methods were highly coveted in Okinawa.

In order to ultimately understand how Chinese Quanfa (拳法, meaning “fist-law”, pronounced “Kenpo” in Japanese[5]) influenced the development of Karate in Okinawa, it is first important to understand how and why the Chinese martial arts were developed to begin with. And any account of the origins of Chinese boxing must begin with the mythical figure of Bodhidharma.

Motobu Choki reports that “unlike the ambiguity that plagues the local evolution of karate in Okinawa, Chinese history clearly links the development of karate to the monk Bodhidharma.”[6] Bodhidharma (also called Daruma Tashi in Japan, or Tamo in China[7]) was the 27th patriarch of Buddhism[8] in India. Bodhidharma is credited with being the first patriarch of Chan or Zen Buddhism[9].

There are conflicting reports as to exactly when Bodhidharma left his hometown of Kamchipuram[10] and began his long journey to China – one source says that he arrived in 520 CE[11], another says 527 CE[12], while another states that he did not leave until 539 CE[13] – but it is clear that Bodhidharma travelled across the Himalayas into China[14] sometime in the early 6th Century.

Upon arrival, Bodhidharma is reported to have had an address with the Emperor of China, Wu Di, in Luoyang[15], after which he proceeded to the Shaolin temple in Henan Province[16]. According to the legend, the first Buddhist monks at Shaolin were in poor physical condition, unable to maintain Bodhidharma’s signature religious practice, zazen[17] (sitting meditation). To strengthen both the bodies and minds of his followers, Bodhidharma introduced “embryonic, spiritual practices and esoteric principles [which] formed the foundation on which quanfa developed. This synthesis included ritualistic vajramukti exercises for strengthening bone, tendon, and muscle; defensive techniques from ksatreya warrior traditions; meditative breathing and yoga asana postures; acupuncture, massage, and herbal medicine; and Buddhist spiritual doctrines, all introduced by Indian monks.”[18]

The defensive techniques introduced by Bodhidharma at the Shaolin temple form the original basis for what is now known as Luohan Quan (“Monk-Fist boxing”) in China[19] or Shorinji Kenpo (少林寺拳法, “Shaolin Temple boxing”) in Japan[20]. The breakdown of Bodhidharma’s original self-defense teachings are reported to be as follows: twenty-four defensive and offensive techniques, contained in eighteen combative exercises; six quan (型 “kata” in Japanese) for striking vital points with the fists; two quan for striking vital points with the palms; one quan for striking vital points with the elbows; four quan for developing foot and leg maneuvers; and five grappling quan[21]. Nine more exercises were later developed and added to these original eighteen quan, which made a total of twenty-seven; these twenty-seven exercises were then split into two parts, which increased the total to fifty-four[22]. Practicing these exercises on both sides then created a total of one-hundred and eight[23]. These numbers are highly significant since they appear in the names of many of the kata that are practiced in modern karate, such as Useishi (Gojushiho) and Pechurrin (Suparinpe).

There are also two scrolls, the Senzuikyo and the Ekkinkyo[24], that are attributed to Bodhidharma, which were discovered either at his gravesite[25] or in the walls of the Shaolin Temple[26]. The Senzuikyo outlines his spiritual teachings, while the Ekkinkyo outlines his physical exercises[27]. The Ekkinkyo was apparently stolen and brought back to India by one of Bodhidharma’s senior disciples, who was more interested in the Quanfa than he was in the spiritual teachings[28]. Like many other classical religious and martial arts texts, it is likely that these scrolls were produced after the time of Bodhidharma, and merely credited posthumously to him.

The somewhat bizarre mixture of Buddhism and martial arts became the source of a great deal of mysticism and mystery in China, especially during the Tang (618-907 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) Dynasties, when Chinese martial arts heroes became a cultural phenomenon[29], and during the Ming Dynasty (1166-1644 CE) when a number of novelists began writing about Shaolin Quanfa[30]. The initial demand for more information about these two new phenomenon led to continued contact between China and India: “With the advent of Buddhism, a growing intercourse between India and China gradually affected the growth and direction of herbal medicine and the fighting arts.”[31] Thus it is clear that Bodhidharma’s initial influence created a surge of interest that lasted well beyond his lifetime.

The Facts About Shaolin:

Unfortunately for those who like the romanticism of this myth, virtually everything that was reported in the last section has been proven to be fabricated. There is speculation even in the research of Zen Buddhism that Bodhidharma was not a real person at all, but even if he were, the reality is that Bodhidharma had nothing to do with martial arts[32]. Anyone who has read on the subject is likely to have doubts; accounts which state that after arriving at the Shaolin Temple, Bodhidharma “spent the next nine years facing a wall on Mt. Songshan in meditative seclusion”[33] certainly can create some reasonable doubt. The historical research of Tang Hao in the 1920s was the first to combat the myth of Bodhidharma[34]. The facts are that there really was a Buddhist temple named Shaolin, and Bodhidharma (if he was a real person) is reported to have lived there[35]. The rest of the Shaolin myth is factually false.

Bodhidharma represents ancient Chinese culture, which was well respected in neighbouring countries like Korea, Taiwan, Okinawa and Japan[36]. This makes Bodhidharma a very convenient figure – both for the martial arts and for Zen Buddhism – who lends respectability and authenticity to any tradition that can claim a link back to his heritage.

So how did this myth become so prominent, even in the minds of martial arts historians and practitioners? The truth is in the power of fiction. The details of the Bodhidharma myth were “invented” in two books: The Travels of Lao Can and Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing[37]. Both of these books were published after 1900[38].

However, myths such as these do not simply fall out of the sky fully formed. There was actually a historical precedent for the story of Shaolin. Firstly, during the establishment of early Buddhist temples in China, there was an inherent conflict in the previously dominant philosophical mindset (based largely on Confucian principles) and the new one being imported. One of Confucianism’s main tenets is devotion and loyalty towards one’s family, while a central motif of Buddhism, beginning with the Buddha himself, is separation from one’s family[39]. As a result, the wandering Buddhist monk became an archetype for being outside society, and outside of government control[40]. Criminals and bandits who wanted to escape government control and stay outside of mainstream society often adopted the guise of Buddhist monks, including shaving their heads[41]. Ultimately, the archetype of a wandering Buddhist monk also became associated with decidedly un-Buddhist behaviours, such as banditry, violence, and lechery.

However, in a monastic setting, Buddhism thrived with imperial support. Many temples became like other large secular institutions, including having a significant amount of land and even industrial production facilities[42]. It is also safe to say that not everyone who worked or lived at these temples were devout Buddhists, let alone monks. In fact, temples of this sort “organized their tenants into defensive forces and employed martial artists to train and lead these forces.”[43] So in fact, many of the “monks” that history remembers as martial artists were really just martial artists who happened to be employed at Buddhist temples.

The myth of Shaolin seems to have sprouted from such a group of individuals. After the end of the Sui Dynasty, a number of warlords were fighting in competition for lands, and one such group seized some of Shaolin’s property in 621 CE[44]. A group of “monks” (who in reality may or may not have been ordained) fought back and helped Li Shinnin, who would later become the Emperor Tang Taizong, secure Luoyang[45]. Some of the monks received military titles as a result[46]. However, “No further mention of combat or martial arts at Shaolin Monastery appears for nearly nine hundred years following this event.”[47]

The next mention of Shaolin in connection with fighting arts occurred during the Ming Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty is looked upon by many martial arts historians with a kind of nostalgia reminiscent of how the U.S. remembers the 1950s – the golden era, an idyllic age. A large part of this nostalgia is the lingering result of the Ming Loyalists who idealized the past during the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty.

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, the Shaolin temple had been recently destroyed. It was burned down in 1356, but rebuilt again in the early Ming Dynasty “with a much more militarized character”[48]. This character would eventually lead to its fame and reputation.

When Wan Biao initially suggested recruiting Shaolin monks to fight the Japanese wokou pirates who were plaguing the Chinese border at the time, the three provincial officers that he pitched the idea to laughed in response[49]. However, after a demonstration of their fighting prowess, the Shaolin monks were recruited to fight against the wokou pirates. They participated in four battles with the pirates, in three of which they emerged victorious[50]. The most notable of these was July 21-31st in 1553, when they killed over 100 pirates with only four monks dying[51].

Again, the term “monk” here is misleading. In Peter Lorge’s words, these were “men of violence who work[ed] for monasteries and dress[ed] as monks.”[52] This meant as well that these fighting “monks” were not bound by Buddhist monastic restrictions; they drank wine, ate meat, had sex, and fought[53]. However, it is during the Ming Dynasty that the Shaolin temple’s reputation was established. General Gi Ji Guang, who was seminal in defeating the wokou pirates, mentions Shaolin staff techniques in his 1561 training manual, New Manual on Military Efficiency[54]. The Shaolin Temple’s success against the pirates led to imperial patronage, tax exemptions, and a reputation for martial prowess[55]. However, just because it was a temple did not make it unlike other wealthy and powerful local institutions: “Like any other powerful landowner or institution, Shaolin occasionally put its security force in the service of the state in return for state confirmation of its local power.”[56]

Despite its enduring legend, the Shaolin Temple fell on hard times as the Ming Dynasty collapsed. The temple had suffered large military defeats and was attacked by a local warlord who looted the temple and killed most of the monks[57]. The incoming Qing Dynasty was highly suspicious of the Shaolin Temple because it had supported and been supported by the Ming Emperor[58]. Without imperial support, the temple struggled significantly for the next several hundred years.

A number of people visited Shaolin looking for martial arts. Gu Yanwa visited in 1679 and couldn’t find any trace of martial arts at Shaolin; later visitors, including Ye Feng, Zhang Siming, and Shen Quan all visited Shaolin and found it destroyed[59].

The temple was restored in 1735, and received the Emperor in 1750, but it hadn’t had a Head Abbot since 1661[60]. The next Head Abbot wasn’t appointed until 1999[61]. Between those two points, the temple burned down again in 1928[62]. Jet Li went there to film the 1981 movie called Shaolin Temple, but even at this time, the temple was “run down and defunct.”[63] However, the movie’s success helped reignite the Shaolin myth in popular culture. Ironically, much like the original situation in the Ming Dynasty, a number of skilled martial artists began showing up at the temple with only a tenuous connection to it[64]. The Shaolin Temple took advantage of its reputation and fame, with the “monks” reinventing themselves as performance artists and reinforcing inaccurate assumptions about the relationship between Buddhism and martial arts for the purpose of commercial enterprise. The result has been staggeringly effective.

So, the truth about the Shaolin temple can be summed up as follows: at a few points in its history, some of the temple’s non-religious, peripheral figures were skilled martial artists who served as a security force and were occasionally borrowed by the state. For most of its recent history, the Shaolin temple has been struggling to survive as a Buddhist institution. In the past four decades, a number of martial artists with no interest whatsoever in Buddhism and no previous connection to the temple have flocked there to take advantage of the Shaolin order’s reputation and make some quick money exploiting the public’s misconceptions about the history of the temple. They appear to have been quite successful in doing so.

[1] Clayton, Bruce. Shotokan’s Secret. Ohara Publications, 2004. Pg. 33.

[2] Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate: A Precise History. Page Bros, 2009. Pg. 8.

[3] Lowry, Dave. The Karate Way. Shambhala Publications, 2009. Pg. 10.

[4] Hokama, Tetsuhiro. History and Traditions of Okinawan Karate. Masters Publication, 2013. Pg. 30

[5] McCarthy, Patrick. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 23.

[6] Motobu, Choki. “Watashi no Karate-jutsu”. Karate: My Art. International Ryukyu Karate Research Group. 2002. Pg. 80.

[7] McCarthy, Patrick. Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate. Ohara Publications, 1987. Pg. 15.

[8] Motobu, 2002. Pg. 80.

[9] McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

[10] McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

[11] Nakaya, Takao. Karatedo History and Philosophy. JSS Publishing Company, 2007. Pg. 8.

[12] Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate: A Precise History. Page Bros, 2009. Pg. 411.

[13] Wilder, Kris. The Way of Sanchin KataThe Application of Power. YMAA Publication Center, Inc. 2007. Pg. 1.

[14] McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

[15] Motobu, 2002. Pg. 80.

Funakoshi, Gichin. “Speaking About Karatedo”. Tanpenshu: The Untold Stories of Gichin Funakoshi. International Ryukyu Karate Research Society. 2006. Pg. 60.

[16] McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

Motobu, 2002. Pg. 80.

Nakaya, 2007. Pg. 8.

[17] Nakaya, 2007. Pg. 8.

[18] McCarthy, Patrick. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, Volume B. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 96.

[19] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 155.

[20] Funakoshi, Gichin. Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text. Second Edition. Kodansha International, 1973. Pg. 7.

[21] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 155.

[22] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 155.

[23] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 155.

[24] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 60.

McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 15.

[25] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 60.

[26] Nakaya, 2007. Pg. 9.

[27] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 61.

[28] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 61.

[29] Miyagi, Chojun. “Karate-Do Gaisetsu; An Outline of Karate-Do.” Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, Volume B. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 46.

[30] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 61.

[31] McCarthy, 1995. Pg. 79.

[32] Lorge, Peter A. Chinese Martial Arts. Cambridge University Press. 2012. Pg. 108.

[33] Funakoshi, 2006. Pg. 60.

[34] Kennedy, Brian and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals. Blue Snake Books, 2005. Pg. 48.

[35] Kennedy, 2005. Pg. 70-71.

[36] Clayton, 2004. Pg. 33.

Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[37] Kennedy, 2005. Pg. 69-70.

Cook, 2009. Pg. 411.

[38] Kennedy, 2005. Pg. 69-70.

[39] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 105. 

Strong, John. S. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oneworld Publications, 2001. Pg. 53-60.

[40] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 106.

[41] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 106.

[42] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 107.

[43] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 107.

[44] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[45] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[46] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[47] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 108.

[48] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 174.

[49] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 172.

[50]Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[51] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[52] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[53] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 174.

[54] Kennedy, 2005. Pg. 72.

[55] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[56] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 171.

[57] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 202.

[58] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 202.

[59] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 204.

[60] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 205.

[61] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 205.

[62] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 225.

[63] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 230.

[64] Lorge, 2012. Pg. 230.

Why I Hate Martial Artists

It is tough to explain to Muggles why we keep showing up, day after day, week after week, year after year to struggle, sweat, and get our butts kicked. There is an ineffable feeling of satisfaction that comes from the learning process in martial arts, which transcends just the physical side.

For those like myself who grew up in the Dojo, it can be hard to imagine who you would be if it weren’t for the influence of Budo. It has impacted virtually every sphere of my life: my daily habits, how I approach my work, my personal relationships, and my outlook towards existence on this planet.

I love martial arts. However, this emotion is contingent on the people who surround me in the process. Many of my closest friends, including my wife, were people I met through martial arts. The people you meet can be the best aspect of training. They can be lifelong companions in the pursuit of a higher ideal. They can motivate, inspire, and make you laugh. They can share in your success and your failures with true empathy because they are walking the same path.

The people you meet can also be the worst aspect of training. They can ruin the fulfillment that you get from training with a single comment or action. You can choose your teacher, but you don’t get the luxury of picking who walks in the door to train with you.

Especially lately, I feel like saying to the martial arts community (particularly when we interact online), “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Here are the major reasons why some martial artists are assholes.


If you’re running a martial arts club or a business, I suppose it is normal to see another school as a competitor. Unfortunately, this tends to influence our feelings towards other styles, martial arts, or instructors across the board.

People train with different outcomes and priorities in mind. They have backgrounds and personalities that not everyone else understands. What benefits one person may not benefit another. Some methods, though practical, are not appealing to everyone. For a young, competitive, alpha learner, MMA or BJJ might be a huge draw. For a middle-aged, out of shape, passive, unathletic learner, these same practices might be far too intimidating. I think it’s okay to admit that some people are better suited to martial arts that are not pragmatically aimed. Not everyone has the goal of becoming an elite fighter. Some people are more drawn to the camaraderie, tradition, and discipline rather than functionality.

The only time when it becomes dangerous is when someone is training in a system which is not practical, but they believe it is. It gives people the false impression that they can handle themselves in a real fight. For evidence of this, watch any of the multitude of YouTube videos where a traditional martial artist gets their ass kicked by an MMA practitioner.

There are tons of these videos, but this one got a lot of attention.

In Karate, I’ve been around long enough to note the target demographics. We are fundamentally a bunch of nerds. It’s mostly historical reenactment meets Cosplay, with some actual self-defense embedded within.

Looking at my martial arts journey, if I’d found Koryu Uchinadi or BJJ at a younger age, I don’t know if I would have been emotionally mature enough to handle the ass-kicking that both systems involve. I’d love to think I would have toughed it out, but I was a wimp growing up. Doing mainstream Karate (though not as practical as what I study now) was important for me to build the self-confidence and resolve it takes to realize that it’s a normal part of the process to get your butt handed to you.

Master Ken’s condemnation of every other style of martial art besides his own is funny because of how accurately it reflects the way many martial artists are. As soon as you name what you do, someone else will tell you why it sucks.

Hilariously, people in the comments actually argue about whether these criticisms are true . . . Did they not get the memo about this being satire?

This is universal, but especially common with MMA now due to the popularity of UFC. Don’t get me wrong–yes, this has proven to be the most effective method for combat sports. Yes, those dudes are the best fighters on the planet. Yes, those guys would kick the shit out of me in an embarrassingly short amount of time.

People tend to forget, though, that the first M in MMA means mixed, i.e. MMA is derived from other martial arts. MMA’s highly effective techniques and strategies were taken from the other martial arts that a lot of today’s MMA fans are so quick to dismiss. It proves the point that collaborating together across styles allows us to mutually benefit. Instead, many choose to treat others as competitors rather than collaborators, which results in the fragmented approach that sadly dominates our industry today. Rather than uniting the strengths of various martial arts into something that highlights our best qualities, MMA has become a doctrine just as divisive and exclusive as any other stylistic brand.

Of course, I have been guilty of being a “style snob” like many others. Obviously, you choose to train and teach in the system you think is best for what you want to achieve, but that is different from deciding to dismiss the validity of every other curriculum out there.

It is also important to remember that it depends more on the person than the art itself (as this article is all about). There are outliers–both good and bad–in every methodology. Surround yourself with individuals who are competent, intelligent, experienced, and genuinely dedicated to effectiveness, and ultimately the name of the system or the design of the crest will cease to be of relevance.


An ESL student of mine recently said in class, “Your ego is an animal.” I thought that was quite profound. On the one hand, martial arts can be a way to let the ego off the leash and stretch its legs. On the other hand, the ego can also limit your potential and blind you to the truth.

Everyone has an ego, and it plays a part in learning. Healthy competition can be a powerful motivator. I’ve had some students that are too okay with losing when they’re rolling or sparring, becoming complacent about fixing what went wrong–an attitude which is not conducive to improvement. Being too passive is a problem.

Of course, whether in formal competition or in class, it feels good to win. Especially when you fare better against training partners who used to handle you easily, it’s a concrete sign of progress, which we need for reassurance that our investment is paying dividends.

However, when your ego controls you, it both limits your training and makes you behave like a dick. People whose egos are dominating their thought process avoid confronting their weaknesses, because they are afraid of “losing face” if they get hit, thrown, or tapped. They either choose only partners who they predict they can handle, or they simply don’t participate in activities where they might lose. In the case they do end up losing, they have a convenient excuse prepared: “I was distracted,” “I ate too much before class,” or “I have an injury that spontaneously flairs up whenever I’m getting beaten up.”

Ego can obstruct learning in this way, but it can also obstruct instruction. I caught myself slipping into this frame of mind somewhat recently when an experienced martial artist attended a study group I co-teach. During my instruction, he pointed out that my supporting arm was in the wrong place during a joint lock, which would allow the opponent to escape more easily.

My ego’s initial reaction was “How dare this jerk call me out and embarrass me in front of my students!?! What a prick.” I felt the need to prove that I had been correct. However, ultimately, I knew I was wrong and that he had made a valid point. I had to stew on it a bit to get over the shot to my ego, but in the end, a more experienced martial artist taught me something on that day.


There’s more politics in martial arts than in . . . well, politics. Dealing with the politics of a club or a wider organization is one of the most exhausting aspects of martial arts, and distracts from the actual purpose of what we do.

Just like any industry or workplace, there will be rivalries, personality clashes, and feuds. The disappointing thing is that martial arts are supposed to teach people to be respectful and open-minded, but seem to have the opposite outcome for many. Especially for a pursuit that is purported to build strong character and ethics, it is disappointing to see how often jealousy and insecurity plays out behind the scenes.

Trying to keep track of who you can and can’t cross-train with, which students are in good standing and which aren’t, who has offended whom, and why Student A can’t stand Student B would be a full-time job in and of itself. There is pressure to take sides when certain conflicts emerge. It is immature and wasteful, yet seems to occur in every school or organization.

The best way to manage these kinds of political rifts is to simply transcend them. Keep your eyes on the prize, in terms of remembering why you go to class in the first place. Presumably you are there to train, learn, and improve; all the rest is noise.


The martial arts community has an opportunity that no previous generation had–to compare our practices in real time, share information and ideas, build on what others have already done, and test what legitimately works. We should prop each other up instead of tearing each other down. Unfortunately, all too often judgement, ego, and politics become obstacles that ruin the experience of what would otherwise be an awesome endeavour for everyone.

I have met lots of outstanding people through martial arts, and I’m really hoping that trend continues in the future. However, if we don’t address the issues in our industry, community, and clubs, pretty soon all the nice people will be driven away and we’ll be left with only those we wouldn’t want to share even our lunch with–let alone our skill development or personal safety.

It’s Not Working! Now What?

Tips for Troubleshooting Martial Arts Techniques

If you’re training correctly, not everything will work all the time. If you are successful 100% of the time in the Dojo, it probably means you are only doing prearranged drills with limited resistance, which ultimately is inadequate in simulating the unpredictable and aggressive nature of either competition or actual self-defense scenarios.

Certainly drilling techniques and prescribed sequences have their function in developing ideal body mechanics, timing, flow between movements, and ability to sense the right opportunity for the right technique. However, these don’t always translate to functional ability to use each technique against resistance. It’s important that sparring, wrestling (attempts to clinch and throw an opponent), and submission fighting against a non-compliant partner are integrated into the process.

The following are the steps that you should take when you run into the situation where a technique is not leading to the desired outcome, either in controlled or uncontrolled circumstances.

Ask the Instructor

I know, it sounds crazy, right? But when something that should be happening isn’t, or something that shouldn’t be happening is, ask the instructor to watch what you’re doing and correct it. A lot of students are quick to blame the technique itself rather than their own execution of it when things go wrong. The unfortunate truth is that, most often, user error is to blame.

The other reason to ask the instructor is to get their legitimate opinion of the techniques or strategies they are demonstrating. I openly let my students know what methods are high-percentage and low-percentage ones for me. However, I also let them know that individual variation is a huge factor; some techniques might not work as effectively for me, but a student or peer will find a great deal of success with them. Some things are requirements that are prescribed by the curriculum, but not necessarily that individual instructor’s favourite choice. Knowing that, a student can take certain explanations or techniques with a grain of salt.

From a student’s perspective, asking questions is also an opportunity to double-check that you are training with someone competent. If all that the instructor offers in terms of fixing your technique is vague theory (such as “Drop your Chi into your belly”) or the advice that “You’ll figure it out. Just keep practicing,” then you might want to re-think your choice of martial arts school.

Call a Friend

Your peers are experiencing the same challenges that you are, so it can be helpful to discuss it among your classmates to determine how well it works for them. The difficulty you are experiencing might be unique to you, or it might be unique to your partner. Even something that seems as universal as a choke may, in reality, be harder to apply on one person compared with another.

If everyone is experiencing the same struggle to make it work as designed, then either the instructor didn’t adequately teach the execution or the technique itself isn’t effective. If everyone else is having success with a technique, it is either you or your partner who is the problem.

Talking with others can be a way of sharing information about what works against whom, how it can be executed effectively, and when is the right time to use it. Discussing your execution with your partner is of vital importance as well. They can feel what is painful and what is not, so playing a little with the technique to test out results and get feedback is an important step towards improvement that doesn’t necessarily need to involve the instructor at all.

Pressure Test

There are a few different phrases that encapsulate the same concept, but the basic idea is this: you have to see whether something works under pressure and where it begins to break down in order to see where it can be improved. It is analogous to the project that many of us had to do in high school where we build a bridge with Popsicle sticks, then gradually add weight until the bridge breaks. You want to train, at least some of the time, at that line when things begin to crack.

Whether it’s through rolling, sparring, wrestling, or what my Sensei terms Riai Tegumi (理会い手組)[1], a flow exercise where you combine striking, clinching, submissions, and Gyaku-Waza (reversals and escapes), practicing the skill of using your techniques with “functional spontaneity”[2] is a key to developing correct execution. Drills and structured practice serve as an important introduction to key concepts and principles, but limiting yourself to only these methods will often lead to a plateau when it comes to facing aggressive resistance. You don’t know what really works unless you experiment and fail.

Of course, success in the controlled environment of a Dojo or gym needs to be taken with the understanding that it doesn’t guarantee success in real violence. I would argue that effective training and preparation increases the odds of protecting yourself (i.e. survival) when confronted with actual violence, but the nature of this type of violence makes it impossible to predict, as well as dangerous to simulate fully in a class. You are most likely to be attacked when the circumstances of the encounter are not in your favour. Therefore, all the preparation in the world doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory.

However, pressure testing your technique gives you a taste of the adrenaline spike, intensity, speed, stress, and sloppy execution that is likely to occur when faced with an uncooperative assailant. It is an important reminder of the unpleasantness of violence and helps the practitioner maintain a healthy balance between confidence and humility.

Get the Context Right

A lot of problems and issues with execution in martial arts are a result of the square peg, round hole phenomenon. Troubleshooting technique has a lot to do with not only making sure you do the technique itself with correct positioning and mechanics, but making sure you do it in the correct context.

Karate runs into this issue a lot when it comes to Kata application. Frequently instructors may use a valid technique, but put it into a sequence or situation that isn’t fight logical (to coin a phrase). The classical “Oi-tsuki” attack, where the Uke lunges in with one straight punch, a perfect pulling hand, and then stands like a statue while the Tori executes a series of blocks, strikes, locks, and then finally a takedown, is a perfect example. These might be useful techniques, but they are placed into a context where they don’t work if the attacker resists.

To correct this issue, analysis is key. What would an attacker (not just a static Uke) actually do in that situation? How would they react to what was previously done? How would resistance change the position or action of the attacker? These are questions that you should be asking yourself when developing or drilling combinations and sequences.

In addition, for any traditional martial artists, understanding historical context can be insightful to help apply the techniques to the circumstances. A simple example of this is Gi vs. No-Gi. Obviously the Gi is very similar to the type of clothing that was worn in ancient Okinawa and Japan, so techniques evolved to match the attire of that society. In modern society, depending on the climate where you live, they may still be valid or not. Hoodies and jackets can be utilized in a very similar fashion as a Gi. T-shirts are more difficult to manipulate in exactly the same way, so more modification is likely to be required.

Context also has to do with the outcomes you hope to achieve in your training. How you follow up from a throw, for instance, will depend greatly on what your desired result is. For self-defence, if you successfully take down your opponent, you want to strike quickly if necessary, disengage, stand up, and get away. Bad things are likely to happen if you stick around to continue the confrontation. However, we frequently practice follow-ups such as joint locks or holds that are advantageous for submission fighting or competition. There is nothing wrong with either option, but you should know why you are doing whichever one you are doing. I frequently tell my students to differentiate between the strategies they would use for self-protection and the ones they would use for submission fighting.

Addressing context will also help bridge the gap between controlled and spontaneous practice. A lot of the time, what works for us in drilling doesn’t work when it comes to free training. “More practice” is a frequently prescribed solution (and yes, sometimes with greater quantity, quality increases as well), but if the technique is not learned in a context where it is likely to succeed, then often the practitioner is doomed to failure.


Especially now, in a world of YouTube and instructional videos galore, it is not good enough for an instructor to simply present information about martial arts techniques and expect successful execution from his or her students. Students can access a lot of that information online, which makes the instructor’s explanation redundant if they don’t go deeper. The bread and butter of teaching is in anticipating what will go wrong or observing what is going wrong, and provide tips with how to remedy these errors.

For practitioners, before blaming the technique itself and simply concluding, “it doesn’t work,” do your due diligence in terms of asking the instructor and your peers, pressure testing, and correctly contextualizing what you are learning. If, after all these steps, the technique still doesn’t work for you, then you can discard it with the confidence of knowing you’re not missing anything of vital significance.

[1] McCarthy, Patrick. Personal Instruction. (For a demonstration of Ri-Ai Tegumi Futari-Geiko, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72sigZhvITU)

[2] Funakoshi, Gichin. “Speaking About Karatedo”. Tanpenshu. Trans. Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy. International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, 2006. Pg. 73.

Why a White Belt is your BFF

Occasionally my students find themselves in that embarrassing situation where they show up for class, all pumped and ready to train, only to put on their Gi and realize that they forgot their belt. In that case, I usually lend them a white belt to put on for the duration of training. Sometimes they ask, “Do you always carry around an extra white belt for people who forget?” And I reply, “No. It’s my white belt.” This answer usually causes people to look at me sideways.

In one of my previous posts, I already discussed the significance of ranks in martial arts, but I find it surprising that other people are confused by the fact that I am both a black belt and white belt. I would hazard a guess that the reason for this is that most people consider the ranking system as unilateral, where once you’ve moved up the ladder, there is no reason to go back down.

While it’s great to appreciate the hard work, sweat, and perseverance that an advanced belt represents (see this post from Jiu Jutsu Times), I believe that a white belt, whether literal or figurative, is the single most important tool for any martial artist.

Beginner’s Mind

The Japanese term “Shoshin” (初心) captures the essence of this philosophy. The first character, “sho”, means “first time”, and the second, “shin”, means “heart” or “mind”. This term is often used to describe the concept of maintaining an open mind and avoid being victimized by the ego’s tendency to think you are a master. Interestingly, adding a third term, “Sha” (者), which means “person”, creates the word which means “beginner”.

I’ve always found it somewhat contradictory that a culture which is highly based on hierarchy and unquestioning respect for authority also holds the concept of Shoshin in such high regard. It is very clear within the culture of the average traditional Dojo that the Sensei is not to be questioned under any circumstances. The student is expected to suspend disbelief when the Sensei is teaching, taking every word as absolute truth, yet simultaneously maintain an open-minded approach.

Perhaps this contradiction is resolved in the terms “Honne” (本音) and “Tatemae” (建前). “Honne” represents the hidden or unspoken truth, whereas “Tatemae” describes the outside or surface representation[1]. It might simply be that, despite whatever doubts may be occurring within a student’s mind (Honne), they are expected to swallow those questions because it might cause their instructor to lose face in front of a group. That silence is the Tatemae part of the equation.

Whether overtly acknowledged or not, we all have doubts as to the effectiveness of a single martial art, style, or technique once in a while. To me, maintaining a beginner’s mind means not becoming indoctrinated into believing a single method or instructor is the exclusive answer. The best way to avoid this kind of cult mentality is to think like a white belt. Imagine if this were the first time you were encountering this strategy or technique. Test the legitimacy of what you’re being taught. Come to your own conclusions rather than simply accepting that “the way it is” is always the right way.

This is of vital importance for instructors as well. I frequently borrow my students during class to try out new ideas and pressure test techniques—with varying results. They understand that what I teach and practice is a work-in-progress, not a finished masterpiece. Admitting that is, I would argue, the epitome of possessing a beginner’s mind.

Zero Expectation

One of the most enjoyable aspects about being a white belt is that it is okay to make mistakes. If you do anything right, people are pleased—even if it’s just tying your belt correctly.

It is refreshing to walk into the Dojo without needing to have all the answers. In fact, you have permission to ask as many questions as you can.

Ideally, your previous experience will show when you get down to business, but I am a firm believer in under-selling and over-delivering. It’s best to mention that you’ve done “some” of a certain martial art or style, but fundamentally, you should just let your ability speak for itself. The fact that there are no expectations on your performance as a white belt also allows you to take more risks and try things that perhaps you normally wouldn’t do.

When a White Belt is not a Metaphor

I am not a believer in the idea of collecting ranks in various martial arts. A lot of people practice long enough to get to black belt, then think “I’ve finished that martial art” and quit to start the next one. If you are practicing it correctly, no martial art or style is truly finished.

With that said, I also believe that starting again at white belt puts a lot of perspective on what you have already learned and what remains. Cross training is valuable because all styles or systems have a particular area where they might excel, even if the majority of their practices are bullshit.

Likewise, if you limit your practices to only what you already have trained, then you are going to get a false sense of confidence. It has become a cliché, but it remains true: it’s only by stepping outside your comfort zone that you can see where you need to improve. If you are only practicing skills that you have already become highly competent in, and only doing it with people who are less experienced and proficient than you are, then you are not going to learn. You are merely going to continue.

It is humbling, and at times embarrassing, to put on a white belt and try to be compete with others in their area of expertise. That is why it is necessary.

How I Got To White Belt #3

On a personal note, I received my first Karate black belt in 2005, after about a decade of practicing a hybrid of Chito Ryu and Shotokan. In the next few years, I took over the club from my Sensei, and became the primary instructor. During this time, I attempted to be creative and explore new ideas and principles, but, being at the top of the ladder, what progress I made was very gradual and sometimes misguided.

The Karate club from back in the day. My stupid hair dates this picture circa 2003.

In 2008, a student of mine introduced me to Koryu Uchinadi Kenpo Jutsu, a methodology designed by my instructor, Hanshi Patrick McCarthy, to solve a lot of the problems that modern Karate had developed. I discovered that my efforts to create practical applications for traditional Kata was largely an effort to reinvent the wheel—a much more experienced and skilled martial artist had already answered many of the questions I was struggling to articulate. I went back to being a white belt and unlearning many of the bad habits traditional Karate had taught me.

My first KU instructors, Brian and Helen Sakamoto.

Although I wasn’t personally there to witness it, rumour has it that at the very first North American Koryu Uchinadi Gasshuku, Hanshi McCarthy came into the Dojo wearing a white belt–leaving the participants scrambling to replace their black belts with something less advanced. This gesture stressing the importance of humility really stuck with me.

I was fortunate enough after a few years of study to reach a certain level of competence in Koryu Uchinadi, and was recognized with a black belt ranking. Despite that accomplishment, I felt—and still feel—as if the vast amount of curriculum and wide array of skills contained within practicing KU was overwhelming. I was a small fish who had been taken from a pond and dropped into the ocean. 

With Sensei McCarthy in Montreal in 2017. Sensei’s knowledge and insight has changed the entire trajectory of my martial arts career.

One of the areas KU had exposed my lack of proficiency in was the ground. I rolled with my students and practiced different ground techniques and strategies, but seeing as how I was mostly practicing with people who were less advanced, they only challenged me in terms of size or strength, not skill. Luckily, my wife started training BJJ and convinced me to join her. So I started at white belt for the third time and started the process over again. I quickly realized just how little I knew in that very specialized universe. The learning process has been equally frustrating and rewarding, which I think is a good summary of the white belt experience.

The white belt struggle is real . . . so real.

Throughout this journey, I’ve always been fortunate to have had the opportunity to become a white belt again. Sometimes that means getting the crap kicked out of me by people who have trained only a tiny percentage of the amount I have. It can be embarrassing, but the truth often is. At the end of the day, I have to look in the mirror and appreciate how much I still have to learn. Humility is one of the values that martial arts is supposed to teach us, but we have to put ourselves into situations where being humbled is a risk in order to fully appreciate what that value means.

Some people, especially once they have black belts, avoid putting themselves into situations where their weaknesses might be exposed. Because of this, they would never put on a white belt and go somewhere new. One of the reasons for this is fear. Naturally, we all fear our own limitations. However, letting that fear limit your training is nonsensical. Being a black belt and refusing to put yourself into situations where you might lose is about ego, not about learning. You have to confront your weaknesses in order to improve.

My students and peers sometimes throw me. They sometimes submit me. They sometimes hit me. And yet they still seem to respect me. Perhaps they even respect me more because of it.

The day you put on a black belt, if you forget what it means to have doubt, forget what it means to struggle, forget what it means to not be good enough, then as a martial artist, you are dead. The journey is over. 

I’ve been lucky enough to say that, twenty-five years into my career, the journey is just beginning. There are new challenges and obstacles ahead. I walk out of class shaking my head at my own lack of knowledge and skill. I still have the same doubts and fears as the first day I stepped on the mat.

I am a black belt, but luckily that hasn’t prevented me from being a white belt.

[1] Clayton, Bruce. Shotokan’s Secret. Ohara Publications, 2004. Pg. 32.

McCarthy, Patrick. Personal Instruction.

Shut In by Josh Stewart

My latest poetry piece, published by Clover and White. In our scary 21st Century world, I increasingly find myself thinking of the “Shut In” lifestyle.


The world is a difficult proposition;
I prefer to let the sharper
wits of our generation solve the problems
their forefathers created. I am content

watching at the window while seasons
roll over like tumbleweeds, numb to the touch
of weather. I like the predictable places
where the mute objects of the house reside,
their quiet comfort as they observe
my meandering between rooms. Let traffic

have its misery, leave it to the tense
hands of caffeinated drones who would be replaced
in a day while believing they are irreplaceable.
I prefer the predicament of what to do
when the dishes and laundry are done—
whether to sit and stare at the books
I’ve never read growing dusty on a shelf

or stand by the front door watching
the handle fail to turn.

Josh Stewart is an ESL instructor, martial artist, and writer. He has authored two poetry chapbooks, ‘Temptation…

View original post 96 more words