Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

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 ~

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Teaching Flow in Martial Arts

Today we have a guest post by Jonathan Bluestein. Enjoy.

The Secret Flow in Teaching Martial Arts

By Jonathan Bluestein

There is a hidden mechanism in the teaching of martial arts, which pervades everywhere regardless of school and style. This mechanism, I believe, is the key component in achieving success in the teaching of these arts. I will now tell you all about it, and how to put it to practice with ease. But first, let me have a short discussion with you, from one martial arts teacher to another, about the nature of what we do.

I personally am not fond of referring to martial arts as a ‘business’, even if teaching them is one’s means of making a living. But were we to equate the martial arts to some type of business, then what type of business would they be? I say we are in the ‘customer preservation business’. This is true for everyone who teach the martial arts. The goal of the martial arts teacher, whoever he or she are, is to gain a certain amount of students, and then keep them for as long as possible or required. This is the reality even if one does not charge a fee for his teaching, and certainly if one needs to earn money from this dignified profession.

Here is another interesting and related anecdote - you need to keep the students more than you need new students. Why? Because martial arts are always a small business venture. With 100 students, a martial arts teacher will likely earn a very good income. With 300 students, you can even become a rich man (not that this should be the goal of teaching martial arts!). Even the largest schools very rarely surpass 300 students, and I dare say that any school with over 350-400 students is no longer really in the business of ‘teaching’ – it is in the business of making money (for most schools, that’s true even when they cross the 200 student line). But in any case, the number of ‘customers’ one needs in this ‘business’ is rather small. Many will even suffice with as little as 10-70 students. A martial arts teacher who can get the number of students he aims for, and can keep them attending classes for years, does not need any new students coming, at least not on a regular basis. Therefore, mastery of the ability to conserve the student population will resolve almost completely the ‘business side’ of the teaching. A teacher who can keep all or most students, essentially has nothing to worry about but the teaching and the practice – this is what we all want.

There are unfortunately many things we cannot control. Disease, marriage, having children, injuries outside the school, moving far away, army service, major changes in personality and more… all of these will take students from us over the years, and there is little we can do about it. But there is the one thing we can control, and that is the quality and the nature of our teaching. Here we can do something, just one single thing, to make a tremendous improvement in our ability to keep the students with us. That one thing is no less an art than the other skills we practice and teach. That thing is the application of Flow Theory to the teaching of our martial arts. Bear with me now for a single paragraph, while I explain to you what this theory is, so you can later understand how it may be easily applied to teaching the martial arts.

Flow is a popular concept in modern psychology. It was ‘discovered’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was the first to make a science out of this common human phenomenon (no, his family name was not typed by my cat walking on the keyboard). Everyone who had ever lived have experienced flow many times in their lives. You know it too. Flow is the state you experience when you do something which is for you, subjectively speaking, the most difficult you can handle with ease, and you also really want to do it. When that thing you are doing is quite difficult but you can still handle it with ease, and you are also motivated to do it, you experience a blissful state of great joy and inner concentration which is detached from time and place. It is this ultimate moment in time when you do something and everything works exceptionally well. You feel uplifted, euphoric, and completely engulfed in the moment.
Although people who write of Flow often use examples from the lives of the very skilled and gifted, Flow can in fact be experienced by anyone – including each of your students, no matter who he or she are. We all experience flow commonly in play, whether it be football, baseball, soccer, box games, card games, sexual activities, handling a musical instrument we have some skill with, etc; Cooking, driving, gardening, singing, dancing, and countless more activities – even negative things like killing and waging wars - whichever things humans can find to be ‘fun’, they can achieve a state of flow while doing them. Flow can even be achieved by thinking challenging thoughts in your mind, without moving. Computer games especially are built to make flow happen. This is the reason computer games have levels of difficulty, and often many of them. The player, based on their skill, can choose how challenging the computer game is going to be for him. What the player actually does is to draw the line of flow for himself. He chooses a level of difficulty which is, for him, difficult but not too much, and that level of challenge, together with the player’s interest in the game, makes the experience the most enjoyable. Likewise, Flow can also be experienced through a wide range of human endeavors, including the martial arts of course, if the person is skilled enough. There is much more to this phenomenon with regard to martial arts practice, and I have written of it more extensively in my international best-seller, Research of Martial Arts.

Athletes often refer to flow as ‘being in the zone’. When in flow, one performs best with his set of skills. It is also the state in which we are able to absorb the most and learn best from what we are doing. It makes sense therefore, that as martial arts teachers we would want our students and ourselves to spend as much time in flow as possible. It would benefit all of humanity if that were the case. But here is the problem we face as martial arts teachers – although our martial arts can manifest flow like any other skill, their training methods were not designed to make flow happen immediately, but rather after a very long time. This all relates to our ability to conserve the student population, and I shall now explain how.

In the martial arts we tend to most commonly have two types of approaches to teaching people. These two approaches, put simply, are “take it hard on them” and “take it easy on them”.          
The first approach is embodied in the traditional martial arts schools, but also in the sports-oriented schools. In such martial arts schools, students are expected to work very hard to achieve skill. Their either suffer through painful training, a type of training which stresses their strength and stamina to the utmost, or both. This could be in the form of holding low stances for prolonged periods of time, placing the body in awkward and difficult positions, suffering a beating from others, exhausting their aerobic or anaerobic limits, etc. This is the Yang end of the scale – too difficult. With this approach, there is the underlying and often unspoken expectation that only the best (most fitting) will survive, and that indeed happens – usually fewer people tend to last and continue over the years than the teacher would have liked.             
The second approach takes the opposite route, considering the martial arts as a sort of pastime. The teacher does not believe the intended population has what it takes for more serious martial arts training. Therefore, the teacher keeps the training and curriculum at a low level of physical and mental challenge. This is fantastic for recruiting students. Many people come and within their first class already feel as if they have achieved something. Then this experience is repeated in many classes. But the student also senses quite quickly that the practice is not challenging enough. That is akin to a person who is ‘too easy’ when going on romantic dates with others, and because of this is eventually shunned by most potential partners. This person becomes that martial arts school teacher, and just as many come at his doorstep, sooner than later most leave. This is the Yin end of the scale – too easy.

As you may remember from earlier, I have asserted that Flow is found in the delicate balance between ‘too difficult' and ‘too easy’. Bringing the student into a state of flow again and again is, in my opinion, the most reliable way to keep that student interested and pursuing the practice for a lifetime. This is because the nature of Flow, being experienced as a blissful and joyous state which is self-perpetuating and addictive, all the while providing significant personal growth.       
Yet there is a reason most schools do not make the effort to keep students in flow. The Yang schools want a serious student who is hard-working, so they do not wish to compromise their teachings to ‘spoil’ the students (or, for that matter, to bend over backwards to make a student happy). The Yin schools wish to make money and fear pushing it in classes will drive the students away. What then can be done to accommodate for these challenges?

Well, I should start by saying that back in the old days, things were simpler. Just 50 years ago, people were overall far more physically hard-working and willing to take on challenges, and less likely to complain. Martial Arts were very new to the Western world and people did not have expectations of something they did not at all understand. Nowadays we have populations in the Western world which are, on the whole, high degenerate. In addition to that, the sophisticated brainwashing by the modern media had led people to believe that what they watch on the screen is not only reality, but something they can learn and apply in reality on all walks of life. This led us to this day and age, in which a new student attending our schools usually has two prominent qualities, regardless of age:

1.       He knows less than he thinks he knows, especially of the martial arts.
2.       He can physically do less than he thinks he can, especially in the martial arts.
Because of problem number 1, the student is often too quick to decide whether a martial art is right or not for him, before truly experiencing it. Because of problem number 2, the student will tend to have a disproportional response to his successes and failures in training. Put in other words – people today lack good body constitution and self-awareness of body and mind. This makes the challenge for martial arts teachers greater than before.

To make Flow work with the students we need to change our mindset. We have to decide and believe that the student, albeit being a novice, can genuinely reach flow or near-flow experiences, if we provide him or her the right conditions for it. Also, we have to realize something else which is very important: While it is true that we want only the best and most appropriate people as our students, going to extremes will not necessarily help us get these people. Just look at what I have written in the previous paragraphs. Most people are not ready for real martial arts training when they come at our doorstep. Neither should we expect them to be ready. We should make them so. By learning to accommodate our teachings to many types of people, over time a significant number of students will evolve their body and mind, changing their attitudes and seriousness about training. Were we to go by ‘only winners’ or ‘only losers’ approach, then we shall get very few winners (if at all) to remain after 5, 10 or 20 years of teaching, or rather thousands of students who came and went without many or any to carry on what we do at a decent level.

Coming from a background teaching the traditional Chinese martial arts, I would like to address the appropriate solutions for the more Yang-inclined schools – those in which the teachers tend to expect a hard-working mentality from the get-go.             
The most common problem I see today in such schools is that the curriculum is simply not well made for modern society. Often the curriculum itself is excellent, but it begins at too advanced a level, physically and mentally. The curriculum of such arts often assumes a population of students which has been doing tough physical labour, often in fields, from early age. This is not where we are at today. This was well understood by pioneers in Okinawan Karate during the 20th century, who were wise to accommodate for the problem by creating many kata to be taught even before the ‘beginner’ parts of the curriculum. This pre-beginner direction is the way to go. It allows a student to be challenged, but not too challenged, and then when this becomes easy, he or she can begin training the ’real’ art. Actually, it is often stated in Okinawan Karate and other arts, that true training beings with the first black belt. This is exactly because, everything before that was simply beginner-friendly material. Sadly, for Okinawan Karate and Japanese Karate, that experiment also failed miserably in many schools in which the beginner mentality was preserved in the long-run, and people could never get past that stage of training, even when they ‘earned’ their black belts.

But the undertones of this approach are valid. The teacher needs to create a version of the curriculum that suits the physicality and mentality of the student, and then from it slowly increase the intensity and difficulty until the ‘real training’ can begin. In this manner, the student can experience Flow or near-flow states, by keeping the practice challenging and difficult, but not too much. But where stands the limit between making it easier, and prostituting one’s art to accommodate for a student’s needs? From my personal perspective, I believe you can determine the limit by asking several questions:

1.       Does the student actually make progress towards ‘real training’ by doing this stuff?
2.       Will this type of training lead to the ‘real training’ within a reasonable amount of time?
3.       Is this level of training respectful of the student and of his honest wishes?
4.       Can this type of training yield any useful skills for either self-defense or health?
5.       Am I taking care to add difficulty when the practice becomes too easy?
Through these questions, you will know whether your attempts to help the student are alright. Remember though, that such modifications ought to be made on a student-to-student basis. The changes need to fit the special needs of each student, and what his or her unique challenges are. One of the reasons that the creation of ‘beginner kata’ caused problems for Karate in the long-term in many schools was that these kata were created for the masses, and not optimized for each practitioner. Not that creating new forms is necessarily the way to go, either. Sometimes single movements require changing. Other times the height of steps and stances or their length beg your attention. Rhythm is also an issue. Following a fixed rhythm of practice is not conductive to the individual. As in the teaching of music and language, each person needs to follow a personal rhythm before they can mold themselves unto the rhythm of the group and of the art. Forcing people to blindly follow rhythm before they can execute movements well is in my opinion, albeit a common teaching method, not a very effective one. The alternative of course, in the manner of more personalized teaching, requires more attention, effort and ingenuity of the teacher, which is why most teachers opt to forgo such an undertaking.

Keeping the student in flow has more to do than just the physical movement themselves. It is also affected by how said movements are perceived by the student. A beginner is strongly affected by his extreme feelings and reactions to the practice. This has to be controlled, through the use of physical and verbal language. A few examples:      

Smile to make the student relax when it hurts. Frown and make displeased sighs when the student fails to meet his and your expectations. But most of all – know when to quickly transitions between negative and positive feedback with accordance to the student’s actions. Do not forget to include both! Commonly a teacher praises too much or too little; yells too much or too little. Strike a balance in such things. The ‘carrot and stick’ method never fails. With children I make it even more pronounced. A child whose mind goes wondering too much and too often might get a gentle slap on the cheek and a moderate raising of voice to put him in place. Then 5 minutes later when he makes a sincere effort to concentrate, even if he does not succeed with the technique, I may give him a hug, and then at the end of class applaud his efforts in front of the other students. One must use both the carrot and the stick to help the student locate the right point between ‘too easy’ and ‘too difficult’, and this relies on the development of empathy and subtle skills for manipulating people.

Another thing I do is to suit the classes to the level of the people who attend them. I take advantage of the changing attendance for this purpose. When today’s class features mostly the less skilled or the more skilled, I will change the teaching content to ‘meet them at the flow point’. When the classes have people of varying levels of skill, I will teach one thing, but then as people work on their own or with partners, I will go personally to those more advanced and issue detailed modifications in their ear so they could increase the level of challenge to their flow point.

Then it is important to remember that once a student reaches a certain level, he needs to learn to ‘eat bitter’. That is, to practice by your order or through his own initiative exercises, techniques and methods which are not in a ‘flow state’, but rather challenging to the point of eventual physical near collapse and failure, involving much pain and duress. Eating Bitter (Chī Kǔ 吃苦), a Chinese term, refers to that substantial effort one needs to go through and maintain for years, against one’s own intuition, to gain higher-level skills. Eating bitter is torturous by nature, and therefore not suitable for beginners. But it is the only path to true skill in the martial arts. Then, fortunately for those who persevere, eating bitter for years on end eventually leads once more to experiencing the entire art in flow, without any suffering. All of the philosophy embodied in this article is meant for a teacher to be able to lead as many students as possible to the gates of bitter training, and have them arriving them ready and mature to accept that sort of challenge. Once there with all of one’s being, the way to excellence is almost guaranteed.

The Chinese understood this well for centuries, which is why their arts have the social model of ‘entering the gate’. In the traditional Chinese martial arts, regular students came for pastime classes in which not much was expected of them, and the higher methods, skills and techniques were also kept from them. Then if a student had proven himself in training and as a human being via various means, he may have been accepted into the inner martial arts family and ‘enter the gate’ of the family compound (a metaphor based on the fact that in the past many Chinese lived in walled compounds with gates, and family affairs would be conducted behind closed doors). This is a good model which helps distinguish those who still require special accommodations and flow-encouragement, and those who are mature enough to suffer of their own volition and accept the pain which will eventually lead them to true flow, in the manifestation of truly advanced practice and application.       
Here too however we have a challenge, in that there is a definite line between that regular student and the inner-family student. But people, sadly, are volatile creatures. Many can prove themselves to be worthy for a while, making great progress, and then later through life’s circumstances deteriorate and wither into a lower version of their former Self. Then, they may no longer abide by the standards of a student who had entered the gate. This is why traditionally, many Chinese teachers waited a long time, often several years, before admitting a person into the family. This was also a request which had to come from the student, and not the teacher.

Whichever teaching model and paradigm one chooses, Flow is the way to go. Do not be tempted to act upon your Ego, and expect the student to be this or that. As a teacher I take the greater responsibility for my relationship with my students. Although they have to meet me half-way, I can wait forever on the road if I did not provide them with a decent enough map. Therefore, make sure the students walk the right path, and be by your example their compass. Then you will find, that things tend to flow smoothly on their own.


Jonathan Bluestein is best-selling author, martial arts teacher, and head of Blue Jade Martial Arts International. For more articles by shifu Bluestein, his books and classes offered by his organization, visit his website at:

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