This time the blog welcomes a guest writer. Iain achieved his brown belt at the national course in November 2019 and took the time to reflect on his martial arts journey so far...
Some of us are in the departure lounge for the care home. We won’t see 50 again and the attraction of the couch, TV sport and beer, particularly during the dark winter months, becomes progressively stronger. One Friday evening in November 2019 I drove to Largs to begin three days of intense Shoto Budo training. My planned companion was unable to come so the journey allowed for some reflection and contemplation, and more than a few phone calls from friends about the weekend ahead. “Why are you doing this?!?!” was the common refrain and I was able to devote some time during the journey to answer this oft repeated question.
At a previous national course the technical director of the Shoto Budo organisation challenged us to ask ourselves why we had attended and why we were continuing to pursue this martial art. Individual answers to the question were to be neither discussed nor publicised but he felt we would all benefit from a little introspection. Was it to avoid becoming a couch potato? He told us of a friend who every evening enjoyed sitting on the couch, drinking beer and watching television. In fact, so practised was his friend in this pursuit that he was becoming good at it and very soon he would need a larger couch!
My own superficial answer is that attending courses was to improve as a martial artist by learning from highly talented and skilled exponents of the art. The grading was important as a measure of the stage I had reached, but above all I wanted to learn and improve my knowledge and skills. There is, however, far more to it. . .
Friday evening introduced the course with the learning and application of the Meikyo kata. This was a new kata to some of us and my initial apprehension that was a little too advanced for me was soon dealt with by a reminder from one of the senior instructors that the learning is deliberately layered and progressive and there was no expectation that the kata would be fully mastered by the end of the evening’s practice. The learning involves repeated practice whereby a little more of the kata is picked up each time, such that by the end of the session even if the whole kata has not been mastered a significant number of the early moves and positions have been learned.
Saturday morning brought further kata practice and the application of Heian Nidan was taught intensively. The teaching method again used was to complete the kata and then move to its application before returning to the kata. Each phase of the practice was followed by a 10 to 15 second period of reflection to inwardly assess one’s performance and consider what could have been done better before moving on to the next stage. For me the lesson that “practice does not make perfect” but “perfect practice makes perfect” explained the constantly constructive tuition from the senior grades to improve techniques and application.
Saturday afternoon was an outdoor practice which allowed a fabulous opportunity to work on kata and its application in an outdoor setting. This brings its own challenges of adapting to difficult terrain and the presence of nature’s obstacles, while testing and developing the technique learned indoors. The experience of practising kata in a heavily wooded area brought an almost eerie element to the session.
Saturday evening’s practice brought a mindful and focused application of the kata with emphasis on detail and form. After a strenuous day the slightly reduced tempo was welcomed by all.
Sunday morning brought the formal grading. Whilst there is always some degree of nervousness before a grading, I had enjoyed the benefit of intense and committed one to one training from Hugh. I appreciate Hugh’s time, effort and patience and I reflected that I would not be put forward for grading unless he thought I was ready. I derived some comfort from the thought that the decision was one for him rather than me but there was far more to the weekend than the external validation of the grading.
The course closed late on the Sunday afternoon after a further session emphasising the importance of kata, and its application. On this occasion we worked in groups to apply a newly learned kata to situational reality and then demonstrate our application to the others. This was a thought-provoking exercise for me, particularly as the kata was advanced but with considerable help from the others in the group, I managed a reasonable application of the model.
I drove back from Largs late on the Sunday afternoon, tired but delighted to have satisfied the examiners to the standard of 1st kyu and reflected on why I had been there and whether I would attend again? One moment stuck in my mind. On Friday night, we finished the formal practice shortly before 10pm. Aspects of my kata needed serious attention before the grading and Hugh kindly agreed to give me some further help. Before long, four more BMAC members had joined and for the next 40 minutes my colleagues gave me the benefit of their expertise and encouragement. This short late evening session was of enormous assistance in giving me the necessary confidence to complete the grading. I felt both very humbled and very grateful that my clubmates would spend time late on a Friday evening to help me. It was well after 10pm when we finally finished.
So, the real answer to why I was spending my weekend in Largs is about being a part of something very special: membership of this club brings deep friendships and a lasting selfless commitment to helping others improve. Egos are non-existent whilst patience and good nature are omnipresent. As was said to me by a senior member of the organisation “these people are my brothers and sisters”.
I started practising Shoto Budo four years ago and one inspiration was a conversation with a work colleague. He had an encounter with another motorist who took exception to a manoeuvre, flashed his lights, used his horn and then walked towards my colleague in a display of rage. It seemed that the angry motorist might introduce a fist to the situation and then just as suddenly, he disappeared. The tension evaporated and my colleague continued his journey. When I asked why events had unfolded in this fashion, he told me that he had practised martial arts for many years and quite simply he was not phased by someone threatening to throw a punch in his direction. He was used to it and, after practising for many years, had every confidence that he would deal with the unfolding situation.
While the aspiration to have such confidence played a part in my original decision to join the club, my four years of practice have brought me to a deeper realisation: that it is for me to take responsibility for the protection of my body. I have learned to respond and not to react, that staying relaxed gives me speed, control and dexterity. I can respond instinctively without conscious thought, using applications learnt from kata. That learning has been entirely achieved with the dedicated tuition and guidance from my friends at the club.
If you still fancy being that couch potato, please don’t retain any of this as it will reduce valuable couch and beer time. If, however, you would like to be in the position of my work colleague you may find it beneficial to join a very special group of people and enhance a very special club.
Thanks Iain, some great insight into what inspired you to train and keeps you practising. And congratulations on the well deserved brown belt.
The BMAC blog began in 2013 to chart one member's journey to black belt.