January 9, 2014

Why I Train

I pour an enormous amount of resources (time and money) into the martial arts through books, DVDs, seminars, dues, memberships, and training and traveling time.  Naturally, I spend a fair amount of time wondering why that is.  Some of the reasons that are commonly given for martial arts as a recreational activity include (in no particular order):

•    Fighting Ability
•    For fun / For a challenge
•    Physical fitness
•    Self-Improvement / Spirituality / Inner Peace
•    Learn about another culture
•    Sport / Competition
•    Practice a movement art

It’s difficult to remember accurately, but I think I first came to karate to learn how to fight.  I think I viewed fighting ability in the same light as learning to cook or drive a car: spend a little time and acquire a skill.  However, I think my apparent interest in physical fighting was actually deeply rooted in a desire to understand and address human conflict.  Subconsciously I wanted to gain more control in chaotic situations, perhaps driven by a vague feeling of powerlessness or weakness.  At any rate, I had no appreciation for the complexity of human violence which I was trying to address.  After reading Rory Miller and Gavin de Becker, I have gained a little perspective and a lot of focus for the conflict resolution goal of my training.  Now I at least have a language to express how karate fits in to the various types of violence, and at what stage in the conflict it fits in (if at all).  There is a ton of information to tease out there in the future…

Learning how to fight is the engine that drives the other elements of my training, but I never would have stuck with it if training itself wasn’t fun.  Specifically, I enjoy the company of the people I meet through karate.  I also enjoy overcoming the challenges that karate training throws at you.  And on a very direct level, I enjoy the endorphins that get released after a good exercise session.

Exercise itself is a good reason for training, and karate can improve strength, endurance, flexibility, coordination, and balance to a good degree.  This works well for me because I think karate is fun, and I don’t think running, biking, or swimming for exercise are very fun at all.  Interestingly, physical self-protection has increased my interest in general fitness, so I now supplement my karate training with weight lifting, stretching, and (less than I should) cardio routines to support my karate.  I also recognize the much more likely scenario of needing to defend myself against old age, and I see it as a form of self-protection to set the stage for healthy aging.

Another element of training that I consistently apply to my life outside the dojo is self-improvement.  I believe this can be derived from any challenging activity, and karate is my model for applying introspection and perseverance to overcome life’s challenges.  The challenges in karate can be physical, like gaining a level of coordination or flexibility to efficiently execute a technique.  They can be psychological, like creatively devising new ways of training or accepting constructive criticism to guide your training.  And they can be social, like appropriately interacting with other members of a karate club to share your knowledge at the right time, accept knowledge at the right time, and allowing your training partners to do the same.

The cultural heritage of karate is important to understand the context and reasoning behind our practice.  Although I was unaware of the historical aspects of karate as a beginner, training has led me to appreciate the importance of the historical and cultural context of karate.  As an instructor, I think it is immensely important to look for the themes and principles of our martial art that have transcended generations.  The cultural heritage of karate informs the reasons for our practice and guides us on how to effectively improve our training while staying true to our martial art.

The sport of karate is not a training goal for me, but a challenge or test of my training.  For me, karate competition is a test of tenacity, mental resolve, and physical aspects of my training such as reaction time, timing and distancing of techniques, and physical execution under pressure.  In my training I view competition as a test of my ability in one limited context, and I refuse to modify my training solely to improve my competition results (although competition may expose flaws relative to my other training goals).

Karate as a movement art is another training goal that I do not apply to myself.  In a movement art, the kihon, kata, and kumite are done for their physical beauty or for the inner joy of movement.  Contrary to that view of training, I use kihon, kata, and kumite as tools to achieve one of the other training goals.  I would swiftly sacrifice the beauty of a technique to increase its effectiveness in a fight.  However, a technique executed with brutal effectiveness may be beautiful in its execution.  While I do enjoy the physical movements as a coordinated, whole-body exercise, I see no reason to separate the joy of movement from the practical purpose of the movement.  This is a subtle difference in mindset where my focus is on the utility and not the enjoyment of movement – even though I do enjoy moving.

It has taken me quite a bit of training and thinking to flesh out why I train in any significant detail.  It never satisfied me to say, “I want to learn to fight”, or “It’s fun”, or “I train for self-improvement”.  Transforming those simple statements into meaningful goals helps me train more effectively and explains the unique position that karate holds to fulfill my goals.  Hopefully my thinking out loud here will give some hints as to why you train as well.

Submitted by: Matt Baran, Sandan