Please read this objectively as you can. Some martial artists are easily insulted, which is not the purpose of this article. The goal is to stimulate thought and discussion.
As martial arts professionals, most of us fell in love with the arts from our first class.
You, like me, were probably hooked from that first class.
Travel back in your mental time machine to the earliest moments you can recall learning martial arts.
Here are seven predictions about that class. My experiences are in bold italics.
1. You started by learning the rituals of bowing in and out of class. Yes.
2. You were told to address the instructors as Mr., Mrs, Ms, Master, Sensei, Sifu, or some similar title? Yes.
3. The instructors were in full uniform. Yes.
4. The origin of the style explained to you as coming from the East and developed by martial arts masters. Yes. “Taekwondo was developed in Korea where they develop strong legs from climbing the hills.”
5. You were told the advantage of your martial arts style over others. Yes. “TKD is a kicking style. That’s best because the leg is a much longer and stronger weapon than the arm.
6. You learned the horse stance from which you were taught to block and punch while squaring off to your opponent and pulling your hand to your hip and holding your punch out in the air.
Yes, along with front and back stance.
7. Your instructor demonstrated a kata and explained, “This is a fight against multiple opponents.” Yes.
Now, imagine this…
The same exact skills are being taught, but what is the effect of eliminating the East from the class?
1. The class did fist bumps instead of bowing?
2. The instructor said, “Call me Joey.”
3. The instructor was in sweat pants and a t-shirt?
4. The instructor said, “I created this in the Bronx. I had to climb a lot of stairs as a kid, so I developed strong legs.”
5. The instructor explained the advantage of the style is that “It’s a kicking style. That’s best because the leg is a much longer and stronger weapon than the arm.”
6. The instructor taught the same horse stance from which you were taught to execute blocks and punches while squaring off to your imaginary opponent and pulling your hand to your hip, aiming and holding your punch still in the air.
7. The instructor demonstrated a kata and explained, “This is a fight against multiple opponents.”
If the skills Instructor Joey taught and the reasoning behind them were the exact same as we experienced in our actual first lessons, would anyone watching have readily accepted what was being taught as we did?
Suspending our Disbelief–East and West
Suspension of disbelief is the voluntary avoidance of critical thought and logic.
When you watch a Superman movie and accept that Superman can fly, that is the suspension of disbelief.
Do we suspend our disbelief about what is presented as self-defense and practical skills because it has Eastern origins?
Two Quick Stories
When I was a new 14-year old orange belt, my dad asked me to show his buddy what I learned. They were drinking beer and smoking at our dining room table.
I did the new orange belt kata, Tan Gun and I explained each step as I had been taught.
When I got close to the end, I executed a square block while explaining, “This is how you block two guys at once. One overhead and the other to the side.”
At that point, Dad’s friend said, “That sounds like a bunch of bulls*** to me.”
20-years later, and I’m at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, where I’m going to teach the inaugural ACMA Certification Program (now the MATA Certification).
I was on a stair master in the gym when an adult karate class started on the basketball court. The instructor started teaching Tan Gun.
When he got to the square block, he explained it exactly as I learned it.
I thought, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! How can those students keep a straight face?”
Blocking two guys? I can’t believe I teach this stuff.”
I never taught a kata or basics again.
Masters Talk A Lot About Kaizen
How have you improved and progressed over the past few decades, or are you perpetuating square blocks?
Have you ever questioned the sheer logic of what you teach your students?
Have you always been taught that the secrets of fighting and self-defense are hidden in the bunkai?
Now that we have multiple videos of the Asian masters executing bunkai, you can see why the root word is bunk.
Have you ever seen a horse stance, square block, or a lunge punch in a real street fight or self-defense situation?
I have nothing against teaching kata it’s great for cardio and coordination.
But I object when it’s taught in anyway as related to fighting, sparring, and certainly not self-defense.
I was a US Open Kata Champion. I was the first center judge at the WAKO World Champions in Munich when they introduced kata as a division.
I also consider myself a life-long student of the martial arts, not a master.
Given the choice in a 50-minute class, I personally would not spend any time on basic blocks, lunge punches or kata. There are way too many fun skills and applications are actually rooted in the reality rather than buried in bunkai.