Friday, January 25, 2013

Traditional Martial Arts

Not long ago, I received some impressive training at a seminar that my Sensei and I attended.  I’ve reflected a lot on what I saw and did that day.  It was like watching my Sensei for the first time, all those years ago.  I was blown away. 

The Sensei putting on the seminar is an expert in several traditional Japanese systems, including weapons.

The observations I made are fodder for many posts.  Below I’ll list some of the main points I took away.  Then, in this and future posts, I’ll delve into them a little deeper.

So, here goes:

1.  Traditional systems are nasty.  Most were designed to  cripple or kill  armed attackers. 
2.  Traditional systems often employ the same movements or concepts to armed and open hand techniques.
3.  Traditional systems tend to have far more committed attack/defense movements than many modern-day, or sport based systems.

I’ve made mention of this before, but traditional systems were bred and tested on the battlefield.  Many times in life or death battles.  Often against armed or armoured opponents.  At its simplest, if it didn’t work, you were dead.  

Techniques that were passed down worked, period.  Battle tested is something far more difficult to accomplish nowadays.

If you’re pursuing a traditional art, it’s important to find someone that understands the original technique fully.  This is key.  We adapt deadly techniques so they’re safe enough to practice, which is absolutely necessary, of course.  Once you’ve learned how to do them (or before), you need to understand what modifications have been made.  You need to know how they’ve been ‘watered down’.

One of the statements that struck a chord with me was when the instructor was talking about how throws aren’t really throws.  


It means that the throws we practice in the dojo are done as a method of allowing your partner to exit a technique safely and in one piece.  Most traditional techniques don’t allow the opponent an ‘out’.  This isn’t to suggest someone isn’t going to be accelerated into the ground, but it does mean, at its core, that you have made a choice to allow your training partner to avoid injury.  Done traditionally, there’s no thought to ‘releasing’ your opponent. 

It is this ‘watering down’ effect that can have long term ramifications in the quality and effectiveness of the martial arts.  This is why it’s crucial to find someone that understands the original art.  As techniques get passed down from person to person, the original intent and technique is often lost, leaving only the ‘safer’ version.

This also isn’t to suggest that these safe versions can’t be effective for self-defense.  They can still work.  The concern lies in the scenario when you truly have to fight for your life and you may only get one chance.  Allowing a person to roll out could then be a fatal error.

Traditional systems are also good at identifying tried and true targets on the body.  The areas that are targeted are vulnerable, even in armour.  There’s not many, “this might work” stuff thrown in.  Joints, eyes, groin (in some cases), throat are all targets.  They can’t defend themselves.  And they take very little muscle to injure.

Traditional techniques are by their nature, far more committed.  Not a lot of ‘feeling out’ occurred in feudal times.  Your attacker was committed and so were you.  This is in stark contrast to the MMA sport competition style. 

Many contain deeper stances for power generation at the time of the attack.  I’m back and forth on mobility vs. power generation, but when you look at sword or traditional weapons training, the attacks are fully committed, powerful techniques.

Speaking of weapons, traditional systems often have what I’ll call ‘cross-over’ techniques.  Meaning that most techniques can be performed armed or empty handed.  I’m a big believer in this.  Train a concept or pattern of movement, not separate systems within a system for armed and unarmed work.  There are some exceptions of course.

Any modern day system is built upon a traditional system.  Martial arts need to continue to evolve and adapt to the realities of the environment around us.  We are not in feudal times, so many self defense techniques are, and should, be altered to fit the world around us.  This is a good thing, and essential to responsibly use force and react to some forms of lower level violence. 

When you lose sight or understanding of the original technique, however, you reduce your available options in a real violent encounter.  If in practice, you don’t really understand the underlying, or original technique, and you just sort of go with it with your partner, that’s all you’ll have available when you need to defend yourself.  

Understanding the original, traditional, or core techniques allows you to ramp up your response, if needed.  Understanding the origins can give you an edge in combat.

Train well.


  1. Nice post. And you are very right about sport styles being "less committed" in individual techniques. When you change the goal from living to winning, it will naturally change how someone fights.

  2. Some interesting points here. I've heard throws being referred to as 'controlled falls' which doesn't make them sound very useful in reality. However, I also know that throws can be done very swiftly and hard which is very difficult for the opponent to get up from quickly. Karate is one art that has been picked and poked about way too much in the last 50 years or so. I'm pretty sure that old masters wouldn't recognize much of modern day karate as the same art they practised. Fortunately there is currently a renaissance in karate whereby many karateka are trying to get back to discovering the original roots of their art.

  3. Excellent article!

    I agree with your comment about weapons training and movement concepts.
    I was at a seminar this weekend and the instructors were teaching Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudo, Danzan Ryu Jujitsu and Toide. The instructors would point out the similarities and often reference and apply concepts from each art. It is a fantastic learning environment.

  4. Brett,

    Your comment is worthy of an entire post. Thanks.


    Real throws can be devastating. What I took away is that often very serious damage has been done during the throw long before your opponent hits the group. There is no break fall built in unless you choose to allow it.

    I feel Karate has really struggled, but it's nice to see some of the 'pure' version making a comeback.


    I love it when good training draws on similarities in movement and technique. The longer I've been dabbling in the arts, the less I see as 'big' differences from style to style. Learning as you did also really allows you to pick up on concepts versus specific techniques. This method has a tendency to 'stick' with me. Thanks.

  5. Learning any martial arts style will require your child to show her instructor unflinching respect. Thinking that martial arts instruction promotes violent behavior is justified if your only experience with the activity comes from television or movies.The benefits of martial arts training don’t end in the dojo.

  6. Respect is most influencing thing to learn martial art, so respect your instructor.
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  7. Agree to this: Martial arts need to continue to evolve and adapt to the realities of the environment around us.

    Whatever be the changes, the core of martial arts
    (character building and discipline)
    must remain. =)

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