The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Solo Training in Martial Arts

This topic was suggested by my friend at The Dao of Strategy. Please pay him a visit.

When I was a young man, marginally employed with few adult responsibilities, there wasn't much difficulty in figuring out how I should practice. I was able to attend every class my main teacher taught (3 classes a day, 3 days a week) as well as train at a satellite dojo ( 2 classes a day, 2 days a week). In addition there were monthly seminars and what not. Come to think of it, I don't think I did any training on my own.

As I grew up and acquired a family, a career and the hydra headed monster of adult responsibility entered my life, I discovered that I couldn't train nearly as often, but was able to practice on my own quite a bit to compensate.

Time went on. My kids starting having their own activities and my parents were aging and in decline. Rather than be conflicted, I hung up my dogi for a period of years while I tended to more truly important things.

During the time my mother moved through a succession of homes (her own, one for assisted living, a nursing facility then finally a funeral home), I knew I wanted to, and would indeed get back to training again and I started to outline some criteria in my mind for how it would be conducted.

I would want not to need any special equipment (mats, for example), location (building housing said special equipment) or have to necessarily depend on someone else (essentially solo training; I train with other people from time to time, but not often). The practice would have to be intellectually engaging enough to keep my interest and both phsycially demanding and forgiving to help keep me in good physical and mental health into my dotterage. My days of getting into fights are far behind me (last encounter >  30 years ago), and instead I'm looking to cultivate a calm, clear mind (which I happen to think is more useful on a daily basis anyway).

My kids have moved out, yet I find myself busier than ever.

What I'm hoping for here in this post is to have a discussion, rather than just my exposition. The question I want to raise is "How do you maintain a consistent, effective solitary practice?"

I have some thoughts.

Given the quirks of my personality, my first inclination would be to think that I need to practice more and more and more. The "10,000 hours" phenomenon discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's outstanding book "Outliers" (which is a whole other discussion) has only helped to foster this attitude. I am inclined to come up with complex and intricately detailed training plans that I could never hope to keep up and would guarantee unending frustration.

"Budo is supposed to enhance your life, not replace it." - a senior budo teacher.

Yes, the more you practice (all things being equal), the better you'll get, but there is more to it than that.

As a young aikido student, I took a great dislike for the attitudes of other students I dubbed "dojo nerds". These were people who were always prattling about "making harmony" in the dojo, but whose lives outside of the dojo where train wrecks. They weren't coming to the dojo to learn out to make their lives better. They were coming to the dojo to run away from their everyday lives.

The repetitions themselves are not the secret sauce, it's what you put into each repetition.

Perseverence alone will not bring mastery.
Perseverance alone does not assure success.
No amount of stalking will lead to game in a field that has none.
-    I Ching

If you don't have balance and are not enjoying all that life has to offer you (because you're too busy wrapped up in feeding your ego), then what are you doing?

So I guess what I'm saying here is that more isn't necessarily better. Well then, how about  thinking out of the proverbial box; how about less?

Let's look at professional football for a moment. It is a highly complex and violent sport. I'm sure if the owners had their way, the teams would be practicing 24/7/365. But they can't. The Players Association has placed very strict limitations on how much, when and under what conditions (pads, no pads) the players can practice.  Because of that, the coaches work very hard at planning and conducting the practices so that the players get the maximum benefit from them.

I'm not advocating getting lost in minutia and planning out every repetition of what you are going to do; far from it (because I am inclined to do just that). What I am advocating is to constantly strive to deepen one's understanding of what one is doing and make every single repetition meaningful as opposed to going through the motions.

"I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." - Michelangelo

My definitions here: A martial art doesn't teach you to fight. A martial art is a training method. One of the desired outcomes of the training method is to stack the odds a little more in your favor should the (perhaps violent) unexpected occur.

"one arrow, one life" - kyudo saying

Here's a quote from a senior Xingyiquan teacher who not only has done very well in full contact competitions, but has successfully trained others as well:

“Form.. is not fighting. And fighting is not form. Form is training. It encompasses theory, mechanics, strategies, ideas. Those who equate the two do not understand fighting.

Fighting is fighting and it is never pretty. It is either effective or it is not. You study your system, whatever that may be. You learn about strategy and tactics, you hone your skill sets and then you either go out and execute properly and win. Or you don't, and you lose. For there is also always an element of luck in true fighting. And what fighting "looks like" is, as others have already pointed out, is largely dictated by the rule set. If you look closely enough, there will be elements of the style behind the fighter. But you have to have high enough eyes to see such things.”

A famous Taijiquan master described a heirarchy that makes a lot of sense if you ask me, in coming to understand what we are doing:

Philosophy-> principles->applications-> form

A manager I worked with a long time ago gave me some very useful advice. He said that when confronted with a problem, don't be in any rush to come to a conclusion (unless you have a deadline or something). Instead, turn the problem over and over. Slice it every way you can think of. You may not find a solution, but you may discover something far more valuable - understanding.

What is it that you're trying to accomplish and how are you going about it? I am opportunistic about taking advantage of those instances when I find that I have time on my hands, but I don't have my mind fixed on having to do certain things at certain times. Our circumstances change daily and it's no use trying to hang on to what worked yesterday.

Chuang Tzu Story - Three in the Morning

What is this three in the morning?

It is about a monkey trainer
Who went to his monkeys and told them:
“As regards your chestnuts,
you are going to have three measures in the morning,
and for in the afternoon.”

On hearing this all the monkeys became angry.
So the keeper said:
“All right then,
I will change it
To four measures in the morning
and three in the afternoon.”
The animals were satisfied with this arrangement.

The two arrangements were the same –
The number of chestnuts did not change,
But in one case the monkeys were displeased,
and in the other case they were satisfied.

Is the story about the trainer or the monkeys? Maybe a little of both. We can't be too attached to having things our way. The world around us is constantly changing and we have to adapt as well.

I'm flexible and open about my training, but I also keep track of what I'm working on (the current and previous month) so that I'm not neglecting something without realizing it.

I've made it a goal to practice almost every day. The "almost" makes all the difference. Without it I tend to put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself. Life is crazy enough as it is. Why would I want to do that? A day off here and there are good things.

Sometimes progress comes by the inch and sometimes by the mile. It's all progress though. Just everyday ask yourself how you are moving the ball forward.

I would have to say that my own practice has been quite solid overall. I've had my ups and downs. When I'm finding it hard to getting my practice done, I know that once your practice really gets hold of you, it's like gravity: you may appear to escape it temporarily, but it always pulls you back.

I'm always looking at how I can improve my methods however. What are your thoughts on the topic?


walt said...

One of my favorite topics, Rick. If I were to write down all my thoughts on the subject, Blogger would *choke* and, besides, you already covered much of the territory.

My aim has been to practice every day -- that was the standard set by my first tai chi teacher and, as far as I know, he himself lived up to it. But over the years, I have picked up additional practices, so I have to be careful to not beat myself up with them, and obsess about "perfection." Like you, I began to suspect that Mastery probably has a little different flavor than "the perfect set."

It helped me to think about what I do each day as "training", that is, conditioning my body to principles and ideals that strike me as correct and useful. Nonetheless, again every day, I have to bring something to the effort, or it is just "going through the motions," in which case most any calisthenics would suffice.

And somewhere along the line, I, too, realized that ultimately I was seeking "understanding," and have noticed that the times I spend mulling and pondering the practices are as transformative as the physical effort.

S-l-o-w-l-y, of course. I plug along, nudging it every day, probing, studying. Time is a key ingredient, I'm pretty sure.

Good post! You've obviously thought seriously about your situation!

Rick said...


Understanding what we're doing and why; moving the ball forward every day - we'll get somewhere!

Paul said...

My humble view: Interest makes every worthwhile endeavor worth its while. After all that philosophy (I've to admit, I love talking philosophy!), it is down to management (MBA type): setting achievable objectives, achieve the objectives, get motivated; set another achievable objectives...etc. The problem with solo training is the inability of most solo students to set achievable objectives for themselves. Which I also found difficult previously! BUT, after I ventured to teach students a few years ago (not professionally, but just helping people I care about), I have to learn how to set objectives for my students (I teach individually, each have different needs and prior conditions), and gradually I learned how to set objectives, and I can set good objectives for myself, and I improved (and improving) significantly when compared to my previous solo times! I practice daily, almost 24 hours a day, with great interest!

Felicia said...

" inch or a mile" - I like that.

In my other discipline, I remember feeling guilty when I did not train each day. I took that with me to MA for a minute. But along the way it was replaced with quality as opposed to quantity. There are now days (although not many, I admit), where I do not train physically - no kata, no drills, no ancillary lifting, running or biking. And that inch is OK because it makes those mile days more of a thing to make happen and look forward to.

Thanks for sharing this.

Rick said...

Ideally we'd internalize our practice to the point where our every movement in every waking moment would add to our progress.

Paul said...

Rick, I agree with you, though I prefer the more precise concept of clearly defined achievable objective, rather than a vague concept of progress, for the sake of self motivation (which is definitive to progress). I do focus on every moment, except those I have other issues that consume my focused attention, like doing a sudoku or blogging, during office hours....don't tell my boss!...:):)

Rick said...

I've got nothing against setting goals. I have some myself.

I just know that my own personality would tend to work against me by setting goals and making plans that are too complex and intricate to get there most of the time.

I have to keep them not only achievable, but simple and straightforward.

The Strongest Karate said...

Hm..No false modesty intended but I am not sure what I could add that you haven't already heard or thought of years ago. But since you asked...

I have made it a habit of performing small bits of training while I do other things: horse stance while brushing teeth, 10 chin ups when I enter my office to play a video game, push ups while I wait for the microwave, etc.

Sometimes, when I am waiting one something, I'll carefully take to Sanchin, noting the feeling of all my body parts and try to embed the physical sensations as a "bookmark". Then I will go back to neutral and get into the stance 10 times, trying to find the "bookmark" as many times as I can without adjustment.

Rick said...

I think it's in The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline, where he describes a number of practices such as those you've mentioned.

For example a chinning bar at the bottom of the basement stairs. Every time you go to the basement, you do x chin ups.

There are a LOT of practices like this we could integrate into our normal daily life.

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Rick said...

Thanks for visiting.