Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will

gandhi-strengthStrength is an important component of the practice of the martial arts. Students of the martial arts strive to punch and kick harder so as to be more effective in their martial skills. This is because the more strength a student can strike with, the more effective they can be as they have to strike fewer times to achieve the desired response, the subduing of an opponent.

Strength does not come from physical training alone. A student can work out with weights and develop the ability to do many push ups, sit ups or other physical feats of strength. There are many tools you can use to assist developing strength, such as ankle and wrist weights, resistance bands, however this alone does not ensure that the student’s strikes will be strong and effective.

True strength comes from the correct application of technique. If a student develops excellent technique, and can apply those techniques to an appropriate target with excellent timing, then their strikes will be strong and effective.

This sort of strength comes through study, practice, observation and awareness. In this state, the student can use minimal effort and physical strength to achieve tremendously powerful results through the appropriate use of timing, speed and technique. This is how the martial arts masters are able to perform extremely powerful strikes and kicks that rival a much younger person’s strength even when they are past their physical peak. The Masters of martial arts are not young people at the peak of their physical abilities. They are people in the 60’s and 70’s who have devoted decades of their lives to the study of martial arts. In martial arts the strength we develop is more than simply the abilities of our bodies.

To develop this strength requires Indomitable Spirit. The student needs to work on the technique, and persevere to always improve their technique. Once you have the external recognition from your instructor that you can do a technique, for example when you get a new belt, it is still important to continue working on that technique. Once you have a satisfactory standard of technique, and can perform it consistently, you will find that you reach a new level of understanding of the technique. You will get a new insight that shows you a whole new way of looking at the technique. Then it can seem like you learn the technique all over again! By continuing this process over and again, we can develop ever more strength in the technique.

To be powerful, you also need to work on speed, especially reaction time. This is important as being powerful is great, but to be effective you must be able to use that power at the right time to get results. If we develop only strength, we can become slow as our body bulks up. A martial artist trains to have quick reactions so they can use their power at the correct time. We train for this is activities such as step sparring. If we train correctly in this activity, we wait for our partner to attack, and teach ourselves to wait until the very last moment before we react, even though we know that they are about to attack. If we treat each step sparring incident as though we were actually being attacked, we train ourselves to respond with speed as well as strength.

Additionally, you needs to have great awareness of your surroundings, and the ability to decide what is the most appropriate action for the situation. Strength is not only about action, sometimes strength is refraining from action if that is the appropriate thing to do.

strength-quotes-pictureStrength in martial arts is not only measured in the physical sense, it is also important to have mental and character strength. This can be developed by being prepared to step outside of your comfort zone to do things that make a difference.

This can be as simple as speaking to a new student in the martial arts school to help them feel comfortable. It can be facing the challenges that crop up in everyday life without loosing your cool, but being a solid rock that the waves of circumstance crash against but cannot move. It can be facing the big challenges that come into our lives without flinching, or avoiding and denying the things we have to do.

Just as physical strength increases with repetition and practice, so does mental and character strength increase the more it is used. Each time we stand up for what is right, we increase our strength. Each time we make a decision based on what is right instead of what is easy, we increase our strength. Each time we step outside our comfort zone we increase our strength.

If we have the indomitable will to work on these areas of our training, we will become immensely powerful martial artists.

A Leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, shows the way

johncmaxwell383606Martial arts is a great place to grow leaders. Through the history of the martial arts, we can see that martial arts has been developed from the very beginner to nurture and develop leaders, not followers . Martial arts shows us how to be generals in times of war, not foot soldiers, and how to be strategy developers, not the ones who must simply follow orders.

Leadership is a skill valued in martial artists now just as much as in history. While we may not be preparing for a battlefield, there are other battles we face in our lives, times when we need to show leadership in a variety of ways. It takes leadership to stand up for someone who is being bullied or spoken about behind their backs, because it is leading public opinion towards doing the right thing, instead of going with the flow.

Leadership, when done correctly, influences people to do the right thing, but does not enforce it. It helps people see the path, but does not drag them along it. It helps people unite for a common goal, but forges deeper experiences than simply the achievement of a goal.

Students have the opportunity to show Leadership as they reach the more advanced grades in the martial arts. The highest ranked student in each class is the lead student. They are the student who calls the class to attention for the start of the class, and they are usually the student the instructor demonstrates on when techniques are shown to the class.

The lead student is the highest ranked student in each class, however in most classes, there will be students who are lower grades than you, or who are younger than you even if you are not the lead student.  This means that they look to you for an example of how to be a student. There are so many things that a new student will not be familiar with – words we use in class, where we stand, how we line up for certain activities – and the way a new student learns most effectively and comfortably is by following someone in the class who has just a bit more experience that they have. We have the opportunity every class to show leadership to the other students in the class.

To be a leader in a martial arts class means first of all to be a good student. This means having respectful behaviour, a positive attitude and good listening skills. A leader models the correct behaviour, instead of talking about it. The only way to lead is by example. With a good example, others naturally follow and everyone has the opportunity to grow and progress. With a poor example, no matter how many good words are shared, there is no reason to follow a person’s example based only on the words they say.

Leadership is about showing other people the right way. Once we have found the right way and follow it, others will learn from our example. A leader will model the way, however they will also allow the people around them the chance to discover things for themselves – to find their own strengths and weaknesses. They accept that they have one way of doing things that gets results, however they are open to the idea that there are a number of ways to get to a result, and not everyone has to follow the exact same path. If sometimes people seem to need help, a leader will find the opportunity to positively remind them that they already know the right way, and perhaps help them on the path.

The King on the Hill

There was once a king who lived on a high hill above a town. He was highly beloved by his subjects in the town below. He was a kind ruler, who looked out for their interests and was known as a wise man. The people were glad he was their king, and would leave him presents on his birthday.

Japanese style water feature with bamboo spout and lantern in the background, UKThen one day a tragedy struck the town. The town well became poisoned and all the townspeople became mad. Only the king, who had his own well on the hill was saved from the tragedy and did not go mad.

Over time, the people in the town grew used to their madness, and used to comment to each other about how the king seemed to be losing his wisdom, and was no longer a wise man. They stopped leaving presents on his birthday. Then one day the king came into the town to visit on a hot day. He became thirsty and drank from the town well.

From that day onwards the townspeople noticed that the king had regained his sanity, and was once again a wise ruler.

This story shows us that being a leader can sometimes be about being popular, however a true leader will not allow the opinion of other people distract them from the path they know to be correct.

Flexibility Masters Hardness

pheasant_bamboo_vintage_japanese_woodcut_art_postcard-r2bde70a5022142d3976322e7022e0b87_vgbaq_8byvr_512Flexibility is a very important component of the martial artists training. Look at the physique of any martial artist and you will notice that they are built for flexibility and movement rather than for rigid strength. Having a flexible body is also a great way to reduce the likelihood of injury while training.

A flexible person is a person with great control over their body. They are able to move their bodies into a variety of positions and respond fluidly to any attack, changing directions with ease and moving from attack to attack smoothly. This is achieved through serious practice of the martial arts, through stretching and through repetition of the techniques you wish to master.

A flexible person is also a person with great control over their mind. They are able to identify situations and decide on the best response for the situation. They seem to be able to change situations from attacking to reassuring, from challenging to calming, from stressful to restful through their actions. This is achieved by serious study of the principles of the martial arts, and through the application of those principles in a variety of situations.

Bamboo is a great example of how flexibility can master hardness. In strong winds and stormy weather the bamboo moves with the wind, following it, matching and yet with the ability to come back again, unchanged after the storm passes.

When we can bend our bodies to suit any situation, and our minds to respond to any stimulus without changing who we are, then we are practicing martial arts.

There is a great deal of debate about how to achieve flexibility, and surprisingly, little of it seems to be backed up by scientific research, much more of it seems to be anecdotal evidence specific to a particular coach or a particular sport. There is even some debate about whether stretching is even beneficial! However it is clear that stretching does have several advantages for the martial artist.

Firstly, it gets our muscles ready for the work we are about to do – we move our body through the range of movement we are about to ask of it. A huge benefit of stretching is that it increases our awareness of our own body, and helps us become connected with our body. We discipline our body to stretch it’s boundaries, and we then become more comfortable in our own skin.

As we stretch, it is important to get the balance right between a good stretch and doing damage to our bodies. Stretching should never cause pain, which is one of the reasons it is important to ease into a stretch. However, stretching should not feel comfortable. If we are to get any benefit from our stretches, we need to be right on the line between okay and not okay so that we get a benefit, not a set back.

There are several categories of stretches, and the ones which are most commonly practiced in martial arts are dynamic stretches and static stretches. They each have a place in our training, and doing both can help your body increase in flexibility.

02physed2_500Dynamic stretches are best done at the start of a training session, either before class, or sometimes as part of the warm up. One of the best examples for martial artists is the leg raise. This is done to the front, as shown in the picture to the side. To do this exercise, stand comfortably and extend one hand out to head height. Then throw the opposite leg towards the extended hand. Repeat this movement 10 times on either side.

This stretch can also be done as a side leg raise. To do this stand with one hand stretched out to the side at shoulder height, turn your toes on that leg down and throw your leg up towards your hand, trying to get your heel to touch your hand. For maximum stretch, keep your body upright, instead of leaning over to the side.

In these stretch, the movement and momentum of our swinging leg helps us get a bigger range of movement than we would get in a ‘sit and reach’ style of stretch. As the leg is swinging, it is thrown up in the air by muscles and is brought down by gravity. This means we do not spend overly long in the extreme end of our range of motion, which reduces the risk of injury.

The other type of stretch commonly used in class is the static stretch. This is the classic ‘sit and reach’ stretch. This type of stretching has the most benefit if done when the body is already warmed up. In these stretches, we hold a position and as we do so, we try and increase the stretch by sinking ever more deeply into the pose we are trying to assume.

For this form of stretching, ideally we try and hold the position for 20 seconds or longer. The reason for this is because this is how long it takes for our muscles to ‘give up’ and let go of their fierce hold and allow us to sink into the stretch. This is also the reason that sometimes we start a stretch feeling it in one place, and then as we hold the stretch it changes so we feel it in a different part of our body – this is because one set of muscles has relaxed enough to allow the next group of muscles underneath to start their complaining!

02physed4_650One of the best static stretches, in my opinion is the one shown in this picture. Start the stretch with your palms flat on the ground and your feet flat on the ground. Lift your hips us as high as you can and push through your hands to lift your hips even higher, trying to get them to be over your feet.

After holding this for 20 or more seconds, relax. Then, bring your hands in closer to your feet and repeat the stretch, again holding it for 20 seconds or so. Relax again, and then repeat one final time, with your hands a little closer to your feet. With regular practice, you will find that you will be able to assume the pose shown on the left of the diagram quite easily.

Completing these dynamic and static stretches will help you feel more comfortable with your body in a wide range of positions. It will also help your kicks have more power at higher ranges, and reduce your risk of injury if someone should manage to trap your leg in sparring.

Our Martial Arts Inheritance

Ancient Map of Korea
Ancient Map of Korea

Hapkido, which we practice at our martial arts school, is a Korean martial art. Korean arts have always relied heavily on kicking in their unarmed attacks, and on the use of the bow and arrow as their main armed weapon.

Korea sits as a peninsula of land in between China to the North and the West, and Japan across the water to the East. The development of martial arts in each country has been strongly influenced by the development of martial arts in the countries around it.

Our inheritance as practitioners of a Korean art can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms period of Korea, where the three kingdoms of Korea were Silla, Paikche and Koguryo. At different times, one or the other of these kingdoms was dominant in the Korean peninsula, and each has it’s legacy for us.

The Koguryo dynasty was dominant from about 56BC to 37BC. At this time, there are mentions in some surviving documents of a form of combat known as Taekkyong, which is a kicking based style. There is some thought that this style may have come from China, which neighbours the northern Koguryo kingdom.

The next dominant dynasty was the Silla Dynasty. This was a golden age for martial arts in Korea. The kingdom was largely Buddhist at this time, with some followers of the Tao also.

Incidentally, the leaders of the Koguryo kingdom at this time fled to Japan, to Hokkaido where they founded some of the early Bushido settlements which later gave rise to the Samurai warriors of Japan. While these warriors focused on a quite different style of martial arts, the fundamental philosophical ideas of the warrior groups of both countries were the same.

During this time, there were several groups of warriors in Silla that were formed outside of the main army. These groups were organised by the king with the intention of being a showcase for the people of what a loyal, upright citizen could be. The Hwarangdo strongly influenced Korean culture and martial arts by their bravery, loyalty and fighting prowess.

The first of these groups was the Wonhwa, which is translated as ‘Original Flowers’.  These cadets were unlikely to have seen battle, although they were trained in the arts of war. This group was largely female, and certainly all their leaders were female. These warriors were in fact highly esteemed buddhist nuns, whose role was to provide spiritual guidance to the army and the country. Unfortunately, the two female leaders disagreed, and one killed the other, causing the king to disband the Wonwha permanently.

The next group of warriors that came to be established were the Hwa Rang Do, which is translated as ‘The Way of Flowering Youth’. This group of warriors was largely, although not exclusively, drawn from young men from good families with good morals. There were exceptions to this, and sometimes a young person who was not from an aristocratic background would be selected as a member of the Hwarangdo.

Mydbtj-masangssanggeomThe Hwarangdo had five core tenets that they lived by;

사군이충 / 事君以忠 – Loyalty to one’s king.
사친이효 / 事親以孝 – Respect to one’s parents.
교우이신 / 交友以信 – Faithfulness to one’s friends.
임전무퇴 / 臨戰無退 – Courage in battle.
살생유택 / 殺生有擇 – Make a righteous kill.

The Hwarang warriors were recruited from as young as age 12, although 15 was more common. Their training and association with the group was ended by age 25. The Hwarang studied Taekkyong, history, philosophy, ethics, morality, poetry, social skills and etiquette and military strategy. They also trained in horse riding, including archery from horseback, they trained in the sword, javelin throwing, rock throwing and ladder climbing.

They were trained to be leaders in times or war or in times of peace.  Their training made them capable of being a general when called upon during wartime, or a politician or statesman during times of peace. The Hwarang was a unique movement, as it allowed young people of any background who had promise to train to better their lives through a spiritual and physical training. This is what martial artists today strive towards – to improve their lives and the lives of others through education in the martial arts.

chinese-general-yue-fei-martial-arts-facts,-tales,-and-mysteries-361Following the fall of the Silla dynasty, the Paikche dynasty came to power. At this time martial arts focused on armed forms of combat. This particularly involved the use of bow and arrow, including from horseback, which it is thought was learnt from the Mongols.

After this dynasty, the Chosun dynasty came to power. This dynasty followed Confucianism, which had a reverence for academic and scholarly abilities and a reverence for ancestors. In this climate, martial arts was not considered as honourable, and over time, the practice of martial arts went into decline. It was still practiced in some areas, particularly the remote mountainsides, however in most company martial arts was rather looked down on at this time.

The Chosun dynasty was eventually overthrown by the invading Japanese, who further crushed martial arts in Korea, outlawing the practice of this and many other cultural activities. When they were finally overthrown at the the end of the Second World War, martial arts had a huge increase in popularity, to the point where Taekwondo is now taught in all state schools in Korea.

Korean martial arts have spread all over the globe, and is practiced by men, women and children from all walks of life. Martial Arts calls to people for it’s ability to inspire, to bring out the best in us, train us as leaders and make us better people.

Mastering Other is Strength. Mastering Yourself is True Power.

how-to-develop-practice-self-discipline-L-NVr1MjThe study of martial arts is the study of control over your mind and body. We work on this every class we come to, gaining more physical skills for our bodies, and more control over our minds.

In our martial arts classes students follow the instructions set to them by their Instructors. The self disciplined student will take the instructions and try to carry them out to the best of their ability. They will work on getting their bodies to do the movements their instructor asks of them.

Sometimes the work will be hard. We might understand the instructions, but our bodies might not be able to do it yet. The self disciplined student will not slow down at this point, they will continue to push through until they can do what they have been asked to do.

As we learn to control our bodies to do what we ask them to do, we start to control our minds to become stronger too. We control the urge to slow down or stop. We control the urge to strike a target as hard as we can when a smaller student is holding it. We control the urge to call out in class, or ask questions at a time when action is more appropriate. We are able to make ourselves do that is right even if we would rather do something different.

As we develop this control, we also gain new skills, sometimes without even noticing – the new abilities creep up on us while we are busy immersing ourselves in our training, enjoying the process just as much as the eventual outcome.

These skills can be applied at home as well. We can practice thinking first instead of saying the first thing that comes into our minds. We can practice doing our part around the house to the best of our ability, instead of waiting to be asked. We can practice doing the things that we need to do instead of the things we want to do. Then we will become masters of ourselves.

Hard Work

Once a martial arts student went to his Instructor, and asked earnestly, “I am devoted to learning your martial arts system. If I train hard, how long will it take me to master it?”

“Ten years” replied the master.

Impatiently the student replied “but I want to master it faster than that. I will train as hard as you ask me, every day, for ten hours a day if necessary. How long will it take me then?”

The master thought for a short time. “Twenty years.” The master finally replied.

This story shows us that sometimes it is not enough to want something. Sometimes things take time. The learning and mastering of martial arts is something that comes with time. It requires Self Discipline to continue with our training. Sometimes we become frustrated, or bored, or we feel that we have learnt a lot already. Sometimes we feel we are not being recognised as much as we would like, or as much as we are used to, for the new skills we develop.

5626626_f260Part of the martial arts training, as we progress through the ranks is designed to teach us patience and self discipline. The road at the start of the journey, in the foothills is relatively smooth and easy moving. As we progress, the path becomes steeper, the signposts are further apart and the path is harder. When know with our mind that we are closer to the top of the mountain, but it seems just as far away as ever.

Our Self Discipline will tell us to keep going through those times, and we will get the rewards of long hard work when we achieve our Black Belts, and our mastery over our own selves.

As martial artists, we need our self discipline not only to stick to our goals until we achieve them, but also to make sure we make good choices, and keep those around us safe. We have a responsibility to make sure we sure our skills when they are needed, not simply because we want to. We also have the responsibility to become the best version of ourselves we can possibly be, and our self discipline will lead us to make the decisions that will get us there.

Closest Weapon, Closest Target

When we train in Hapkido, we are predominately concerned with how to respond to being attacked, rather than initiating an attack ourselves. There are several stages which a student must recognise in an attack. samurai_attack_by_octopusdesenhos-d54ic45The first one is recognition that you are being attacked. Sometimes this is simple and straightforward, other times an attacker might be more subtle. We can be attacked in a physical way, and this is usually very obvious, however not always. Sometimes physical attacks can come after a series of minor steps towards an attack have been made. An example of this is someone, apparently by accident, brushing against you as they pass, knocking you a little, and then failing to apologise. Then maybe taking something that belongs to you, whether it is something tangible or some right, such as a place in line, your turn to speak in a group conversation. After a couple of such ‘trial attacks’ the attacker may then attack for real. It is important, in situation such as this, to trust your instincts. If you have a feeling that someone has not got good intentions, or there is something in a situation that is not right, trust that feeling. We often use ‘common sense’ or other people’s judgements to override our intuition. A person or situation being accepted by other people does not necessarily mean it is acceptable for you. It is always better to be alert and prepared for something that did not happen that to be taken unawares due to ignoring the subtle feelings we get that tell us when something is not quite right. Awareness of your personal space, of the space or room you are in is an important part of your training. When we are not accustomed to listening to our intuition, is can, like any muscle, waste away from lack of use. In order to tap in to our awareness we can use our breathing. When we breathe correctly, deep into our stomach instead of just in the top of our chest, we have the chance to get our mind to operate at deeper levels. We can also use gravity, a feeling of being connected to the earth increase our awareness. As we feel the subtle pull of gravity acting to drag us toward the earth, we have the chance to increase our physical and mental stability. We can also use our presence to help increase our awareness. This is about being completely focused in the moment, interacting with the here and now, not planning out the future or dwelling on the past. Being in the moment helps us see clearly, without the prejudice of the past or the future. We can also use stillness to help find our intuition. Stillness does not have to be for a long time. It can simply be a pause between stimulus and response, a brief time when we consider our options before taking action, rather than lashing out, or responding in a way we may later regret. self-awarenessWhen we use these tools, we are able to deal with all situations in a way that is meaningful and in line with our authentic selves. This not only helps us to keep physically safe, but also mentally safe from regret or a feeling of powerlessness. Using these tools also prevents us ‘freezing’ when a confrontation situation comes along. With these tools we are living in the moment and experiencing everything that is happening just as it is, not through the cloudy lenses of the past, or prejudice or desire to do anything except respond appropriately to each moment as it arises. If you are aware, you are likely to be able to prevent an attacker from even taking hold of you, by using your body movements to make it impossible for the attacker to get a firm grip on you. You can also release from grabs before they are firmly established if you are aware of your personal space and where objects and people are in relation to you. If someone does grab you, the most important thing is to do something. Consider a child who does not want to be put into the car. It is very difficult to make them do so without some compliance on their part. If you are attacked, do not comply! This is the most effective way of getting an attacker to back down. In order to release from a grab or hold, use the theory of closest weapon, closest target. This is very simple, yet sometimes deceptive to master. Use your closest weapon —hand, elbow, knee, foot, shoulder, head against your attacker’s closest target —temple, nose, chin, solar plexus, stomach, groin, knee, shin, foot This usually means that you attacker will not see the lead up to your attack, and so will be unable to anticipate the attack. Once you have a moment when your attacker is off guard, this is your opportunity to escape, or further restrain your attacker if appropriate. When we act to defend ourselves, it is important that we make a choice to defend ourselves, rather than simply lash out. When we do decide that action is required, we want to act as quickly as possible to end a confrontation as quickly and effectively as possible. By using the closest weapon on the closest target, we can prevent a long and drawn out conflict, which self defence always seeks to avoid. reactions-to-fear-quote-sun-tzuBy acting with awareness, we not only prevent ourselves from freezing under attack, we are also able to direct our attacks with the appropriate force to the correct target. We are also able to stop attacking once a situation is under control, and not carry on attacking  needlessly and inadvertently become an aggressor ourselves.

Go Placidly Amidst the Noise and Haste

Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. This is the opening sentence from the prose poem ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann.

zen-meditation_67367911Some days there is plenty of noise and haste, and it seems that the peace of silence is just a distant memory. On days like this, I am reminded of a story told of two students, boasting of the dedication of their Instructors. One of the students said “My master is so advanced in his training that he lives in retreat from the world. High up in the mountains over the city he sits in meditation, only interacting with the world when he teaches our classes. He finds the business of the world distracts him from his focus on higher things”

That is interesting, replied the other student, my master lives completely in the world, we walks through the markets and the busiest part of the city, and he is one of the calmest, most advanced masters I have ever met.”

The students, on hearing the other’s stories, went back to their masters, and spoke of what they had heard. Each master decided that they would then try and share the experience of the other. The master who lived in the world went high up into the mountains to meditate in the silence of nature. He came back to his student ‘That was a very pleasant day, but not any different to my other days. There is  peace on the mountain, there is peace in the city.

The master who was in retreat from the world went down in into city, among the people and the chaos of the market. After only a short time, the master became visibly anxious and agitated, and quickly asked to be taken away from all the noise and agitation of the world, which distracted him from his calm and peace.

8745788ecf8a91adabafa8e54bddb0b5This story shows us that the external circumstances do not allow us to access peace. If peace is within us, we can access it regardless of the circumstances. If we do not have peace inside us, even if we are in the most calm of circumstances, we will bring worry and disturbance to that place because it is there in our mind.

This is where martial arts steps in. By participating in a martial arts class, we have the opportunity to break free from the worries of our lives and get to a place where they scale back in their importance, and we can breathe a little more freely.

In martial arts, there is a word that describes this sensation – Mu Shin. This can be translated as ‘No Mind’. This is a state where you are completely physically engaged in an activity which occupies just enough of your mind that you can escape other thoughts and concerns and find some peace and some quiet in your own mind.

This is one of the powerful benefits of training in the martial arts, the ability to immerse yourself in something that is greater than you, and then have the art flow through you. You are not practicing martial arts, you are living martial arts, and your body is occupied, your mind is free.

Many activities can give you this feeling, however martial arts, with it’s emphasis on mental development as well as physical development is especially suited to achieving this state of mind. As we come to our martial arts class and train, pushing our bodies to achieve new skills, pushing our minds to  come up with new combinations and arrangements of techniques, we can learn to achieve this state of mind more quickly in class.

This is a very practical form of meditation, and with time and experience, we will be able to carry the peace that comes with training with us even when we are not physically training.