Are Traditional Dojos Relevent?

My brother in law owns a fitness center where they do group fitness classes from a specific group fitness company.  This company describes them self as a research more than fitness company.  They put out a lot of articles on fitness research, nutrition and even recipes.  They offer licensed classes in fitness clubs all over the world and support certified instructors quarterly.

Over Christmas dinner my brother-in-law started to tell me about a new kickboxing type workout they offered.  He talked about the science that goes into how these classes are structured so you get the most out of them and how this class integrates moves from Karate, Tae Kwon do, Boxing, Muay Thai, Capoeira and Kung Fu in to one great workout.  I could appreciate what he was saying from some perspectives.

This is what I term Marital Fitness not Martial Arts.  It seems disrespectful to “combine” several martial arts that take years of discipline and hard work to understand, for fitness.  At least they were not giving out black belts…  Often when I see several martial arts advertised it is a flag to me that none are truly understood.  Now with this class the martial aspect was not highlighted, and that is an aside.

My Brother in law is a great businessman and a natural sales person so it was easy to get excited about this class as he talked about it.  He extended an invitation for me to attend and I was happy to take him up on the offer.  It had been two days of visiting and driving and eating and I was in need of movement!  About 20 people were punching the air when I arrived.  We went through drills and combinations kicks and jumps, even practiced running.  The talk from the instructors was motivational, positive and uplifting.  Like any good fitness program they encouraged participants to listen to their needs and offered modifications.  The interval nature of the training was evident and it works no question.

Well on to my initial question, are traditional dojos relevant?  With all the research and science that goes in to modern methods of exercise why would you continue doing something from 100 Years ago?  If your goal is fitness these modern options may be more appropriate.  But there is so much more to be gained from traditional training; body awareness, Timing, a thorough understanding of distancing and a level of control so we are capable of hitting a specific target.   We focus on skill development that leads to self-defense and situational awareness.  Now an argument could be made that these things could be developed by adding a few steps to a modern class.  True so what is the value of traditional dojos?  At the minimum a dojo that holds the traditions assists in developing respect for authority.  There is a sense of accomplishment and resiliency as a student puts in the hard work to progress through the belt system.

In an interview with Black belt magazine April 24, 2015 Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a huge advocate for martial arts training, answered the question:  What physical and interpersonal skills do children and teenagers take away from martial arts training?

 Discipline, perseverance, respect for self and others, exercise, self-defense, focus, a sense of accomplishment. Along the way, children develop maturity, camaraderie, self-control, confidence, competency at something that requires their mind and body, coordination, respect for authority — which they often don’t have at home, sadly — and so forth. For many children with absent fathers and chaotic home situations, the martial arts studio is where they learn to settle down, focus and feel a part of something special. “

About her own training which she began at 41 she said:

“I didn’t need to learn discipline; I am hardwired that way. I loved the formalities and having goals that I couldn’t obtain just with IQ: grit, stamina, coordination. I was so happy to finally learn how to breathe in order to keep my balance on one leg. People are still amazed that to tie my shoe laces, I don’t sit down or bend over. I bring my foot up to me and tie the laces with only one foot on the ground, without wobbling.”

More importantly we learn a philosophy.  There are embedded concepts in the traditional methods that are only discovered after years of repetitive practice.  Those concepts vary from style to style and to some extent dojo to dojo depending on how they are unpacked.

In the Book The Weaponless Warriors , Richard Kim sensei Writes:

The most difficult task in teaching karate is to instill belief in the moral aspects of the art. Most students are interested in the immediate results of fighting techniques and care little about morality which is the foundation behind them.

This raises the question, “If we are fully aware of the violence inherent in man’s nature, are we not turning out killers? Are we not teaching an art that enables man to destroy man?”

The answer must be, as great Okinawan Masters have always answered, “yes, we are fully aware of the violence inherent in man, and that the art of karate embraces within itself techniques to kill with the empty hand. But, there is a morality involved, woven in the fabric of karate, that controls the violence and the use of the art except under one condition–absolute necessity in dire Peril.”

The rhetoric is good, but the question itself is academic. How does one go about teaching fighting techniques and instilling morality at the same time? How does one accomplish the juxtaposition of fighting and morality at the same time?

The answer is found in the kata, the heart of karate. Kata is meant to train the mind, and is not intended solely for conceptual and intellectual self-defense. Indeed, to bring it in contact with the real self is it’s true purpose.

Kata, in the traditional sense, is a religious ritual. The art of karate does not mean the ability of technical excellence, which can be developed by physical training, but inability of attaining a spiritual goal through the practice of the kata, so that the player plays against himself and succeeds and conquering himself.

The basis of kata is in the concept “karate ni sente nashi,” literally translated, “in karate, one does not make the first move.” All kata begin with defense and end with the defense. The kata instills the belief that the true karateka never strike first, and never strike in anger.