What is a Langkah?

Langkah (Indonesian) - noun: literally step, move, pace, action, measure, stride, leap, foot, footstep, gesture, tread, footpace

In Indonesian martial arts, Pencak Silat, it commonly refers to geometric patterns on the floor used to train footwork and develop an understanding of the role of the lower body in maintaining balance and a base from which to generate power.

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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Embrace Failure

People tend to shy away from new things because they don’t want to look stupid. This reflects a fear of failure.

Growth comes from challenge. When you challenge yourself, you will fail more often than you succeed. You know you’re growing when you start succeeding more than you fail.
If you rarely fail, you’re not challenging yourself. If you’re not challenging yourself, you’re stagnating.

Some people get frustrated when they can’t immediately perform a new task. If this is you, let go of expectations. Accept the challenge and embrace the failure.

When you say, “I’ll try,” you’re A) setting up the possibility of failure, and B) refusing to embrace failure. You’re giving yourself an out. You’re really saying, “I’ll try but I won’t be surprised if I fail because this is too hard for me.” You’re both setting up the failure and refusing responsibility for it.
The only growth you can have from trying is to get better at trying. Like Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Do. Push the envelope. Challenge yourself. Fail. Repeat.

Avoid preconceptions and expectations about how long the process should take. Remember, it is a process, not a product.

Of course, I’m specifically talking about martial arts training but this principle applies to everything. In fact, it applies to life.

The Wandering Guru

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." — Winston Chuchill

Friday, May 29, 2015

Thoughts on Teaching

When I first started teaching, I assisted my instructor. Teaching in front of your own instructor—teaching material he taught you—is very nerve-wracking. Every time I got up to teach a swarm of butterflies hatched in my stomach.

In '98, I visited a school and one of the instructors, Eugene, asked me to cover a class for him while he was out for surgery. I had never met the instructor before and I was still six months from becoming a certified instructor under my own instructor. I don't know why he asked me to cover his class but I agreed to do it.

I called my instructor, explained the situation, and asked for advice.

He said, "Blow them away."

I didn't know if I could blow them away. I had no idea how good the instructor was or the level of his students.

I went into the class and asked the assistant instructor what they usually did for warm ups. He named a drill they often used. I decided to start there but tweak it from the way they normally did it—just adding a little spice to it from my own background. The modification was, in my mind, trivial. The assistant instructor picked it up quickly but the modification lost rest of the class. I had blown them away by accident.

The rest of the class went smoothly and the school owner, Joe, watched most of my class. Afterward, he told me, "That was great stuff and you're an excellent teacher."

That experience gave me the final puzzle piece in an epiphany that my unconscious mind had been putting together for me and I realized a few things:
  1. If I'm teaching—unless I'm just explaining something to a training partner—then someone has asked me to teach. They, at least, think I have something worthwhile to share.
  2. When I'm teaching I'm not teaching the material, I'm teaching my understanding of the principles which underlay the material. The material is the vehicle I'm using to explain those principles. Since no one else in history has lived my specific life and since my understanding is based on my life experiences inside & outside of training, no one else has ever had, or will ever have, my specific understanding of the material.

From these two realizations came confidence. When I get up to teach, no matter what I'm teaching, it's completely unique. No one else can teach it the way I do. Consequently, anyone can learn from it. Even if it's my instructor or his instructor. Even if someone watching knows the material a thousand times better than I ever will, they might still learn something valuable from my expression of it.
Over the years, many people—including some world class martial artists & instructors who are legends in their own system and well-respected outside of their own system—have complimented me on my understanding and teaching.

From all this, my advice to new and future teachers is to remember these things:

  1. When you start teaching, you will have years of training and hundreds (probably thousands) of hours of "dirt time." If you've been asked to teach then someone has faith in your ability to do so. If you keep a level head then you will live up to or exceed expectations.
  2. Be yourself. You're teaching your own understanding. No one else in the world, or in history, can do that.
  3. There are no mistakes, only opportunities for exploration and growth. This maxim applies to your students and their work as well as to your teaching.
  4. You're still a student. Be open to learning—even from the lowest ranked person in the room, or from a spectator on the sidelines who has no training or experience in martial arts. If you pay attention then you can learn from them and their questions/observations.
  5. Be patient. First, be patient with yourself. Frustration at yourself can bleed over to how you treat students. Breathe. Relax. Move on. Second, be patient with your students. Remember, your instructor's patience is part of the reason you've made it this far. Third, be patient with everyone. You never know what kind of day they had before you dealt with them or what kind of life they have in general. For good or ill, martial artists and, especially, instructors are looked to as role models and often held to a higher standard. We may sometimes fall short of those standards but we should always strive to set as good an example as we can.

There are other things I could say but I think those five items give a good, solid foundation on which you can build a strong teaching method and do right by your students while also representing the training you have been through and the spirit of the art you're teaching.

To wrap this up, I'll share a story from my Goju-Ryu days. One day Shihan Davenport asked the class, "What is Karate?"

After a long, uncomfortable pause, we each came up with an answer. He said, "Good. All of those are reasonable answers but they're all wrong. Karate is what I tell you it is."

Now, this statement may seem a bit overbearing or arrogant. I certainly thought so in the second after I heard it and before Shihan continued to explain. Students don't know what Karate is until an instructor tells them.

As instructors, we have a pretty huge responsibility. Our students don't know any better—though in this info rich age they are generally better informed than when I heard this from Shihan Davenport.
We must provide our students with the most accurate information we can and guide them along the path to the best of our ability. Our responsibility is to help them understand what martial arts is. We must always be true to ourselves, our teachers, and our training. Of course, it's possible to misuse or abuse the position and mislead or manipulate students out of some egotistical impulse. The students won't know any better (again, in this info rich age, they may figure it out at some point but the premise is still valid).

Going back to my previous comment about being role models. Some students put their instructors on pedestals—which pretty much guarantees the instructor will stumble & fall off at some point. Instructors are as human as the next person. However, since martial arts is, in a very literal way, "what we tell them it is" we have a responsibility represent the endeavor well and help others find the same passion and benefits that we ourselves have found in our own training.

That is why I teach.

I can attribute, directly or indirectly, everything in my life I label as "positive" (with very few exceptions) to my training in the martial arts. Martial arts have enriched my life and given me rewards beyond measure. I teach because I want to help other people find similar benefits/enrichment in their own lives. In fact, on top of my sheer love of teaching, I feel a current of obligation to use my training to "pay it forward." If I can have a positive impact on just one life then it's like a pebble thrown into a pond. The ripples can influence many fish and if the influence is positive then the resulting ripples will be positive and, in this way, my little pebble can have a positive effect on many people. It's a powerful and, for me, motivational thing to realize. It keeps me humble and makes me proud. It keeps me excited about what I do and excitement is one of the keys, if not the key to longevity both as a martial artist and in life.

I would sum up teaching in these five words: live, laugh, love, grow, share. Do those things and everything else should fall into place.

The Wandering Guru

"True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own." — Nikos Kazantzakis

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sanctified and Kiai-ed

Years of old school training instilled within me a belief in a pure art/system. At some point, though, I had an epiphany. I looked into the history of what I studied and, to varying extents, other martial arts. I realized there is no such a thing, in this day and age, as a pure art/system.

Every martial art system I know any of the history of was influenced by an older art/system. Yes, there are plenty of arts/systems I'm unfamiliar with but I do have at least a passing familiarity with the history of a lot of arts/systems from around the world.

Further and, in my estimation, more importantly, every art/system has been influenced by other arts/systems. Some were influenced directly, the way that "Okinawa-Te" was directly influenced when Kanryo mixed it with his training in Chinese martial arts and, ultimately, developed "Karate."

Other arts/systems were influenced indirectly. Originally, martial arts were developed to fight other people. You can't interact with someone, even in a fight, without being influenced by them. Period. So the people/art/system they were training to fight against influenced the development of their own art/system.

Sometimes—very often, in fact—you get mixtures like the Filipino martial arts. Some were directly influenced by Spanish methods. Others were influenced by the Spanish or Portugese or whoever else they were fighting.

There is no such thing as a pure art/system.

Tangential to the concept of a pure art/system is the idea that an art/system can be considered somehow sacred. People like to set their martial arts training apart and, usually, above their training in other endeavors. There is no difference between teaching/training music or dance or sports and teaching/training martial arts. None.

The only thing sacred about an art or system is how you view it in your heart. The benefits it gives you. But that is also true of music or dance or whatever. Sacred is completely subjective.

So you know where I'm coming from terminology-wise, here are definitions for the terms I'm using:
  • art: a broad category of systems, usually defined by geographical region (Filipino arts, Chinese arts, etc.) but sometimes defined by primary methodology (grappling arts, striking arts, etc.)
  • system: a specific curriculum
  • style: an individual's personal expression of what s/he has trained

So, by my definitions, neither an art nor a style can be taught. One is too general, the other is too personal. Only systems can be taught. A system is just a curriculum. It's just a path for a student to walk. It's designed for the instructor to illustrate concepts, principles, pitfalls, etc.

Just like teaching music. Each teacher uses a curriculum designed by him/herself or one dictated by the school where they teach. One curriculum isn't any better than another. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Each has merit. Some teachers will teach a particular curriculum better than they might another. Some students will be better suited for one curriculum than another. Nothing "sacred" at all.

Martial arts systems are no different. When I tell people I developed my own system they think I've either (a) gone off the deep end because no one can just develop their own system, that's only for grandmasters—and, of course, they have some imaginary and subjective requirements for that role too—or (b) they think I'm delusional or "too big for my britches" or whatever.

Every system was, at some point, developed by some person. I would wager, every time the person faced the same sorts of responses when people found out about it. Over time, some people opened their mind—or open minded people saw it—and started taking it seriously. Over time people started looking at it and saying, "Yes. It's valid." Over time people started training in it and sooner or later it gained credibility. The system itself didn't change, just the perception of it. A few decades later and it's become an accepted system and it's considered traditional.

One of the most famous examples of this is Jun Fan/JKD. Bruce Lee developed the system of Jun Fan and the philosophy of JKD based on his training in Wing Chun, his experiences fighting, and his exposure to various other martial arts. When he first started coming out with it he had plenty of naysayers. Now no one gives the idea of training JF/JKD a second thought. Of course it's worthwhile.

All systems, at some point, were new. There's nothing special or sacred about any of them. The only thing special or sacred is what you bring to it internally but, again, that's true of any endeavor you undertake.

The only thing truly sacred in martial arts training is the fellowship and camaraderie. The friendships and bonds formed during training. Those are things I consider sacred aspects of martial arts—and I suspect most people would agree. The system, organization, art, material taught, etc. are all superficial expressions.

The Wandering Guru

“Every path through the woods is sacred to someone. No path is better than any other. They all lead somewhere valuable, even if it’s not a place you recognize as important.” — Guru Mike Casto

Dolphin Distress: Wandering Guru’s Plight

This guru's wanderings were brought to an abrupt halt at 1:30 AM on Sunday, May 3, 2015.  Now I'm all but stranded and effectively homeless.

In March, I bought an RV. It's a 21' Toyota Dolphin. It had some issues but seemed mechanically solid. In fact, to quote the mechanic who did a tune-up and looked everything over, "That thing's in *awesome* shape! It's barely broken in. Go put some miles on it and have fun."

Apparently, "put some miles on it" didn't mean ~1,000 miles in a week on mountain grades.

The Dolphin stalled out on I-84 E, just north of the Utah border.

At first, I assumed the alternator had gone out. It seemed the most likely culprit. I got towed to Tremonton, UT.

None of the garages were open on Sunday, of course, but O'Reilly Auto Parts was. I went and bought an alternator and attempted to replace it myself.

My minimal mechanical aptitude wasn't up to the task so I had pizza, watched a movie, and went to bed to wait for the garage to open on Monday morning.

The mechanic tested the alternator and it was fine. We jump started it and an ominous banging arose from the engine. The mechanic grimaced. "That's bad. And we don't handle anything that bad."

Here's the bottom line. I need to take the Dolphin to another garage and they need to replace the engine. Estimated cost is $4,000.

My wife and I are scrambling and scraping to come up with the money, not to mention trying to figure out how to meet my commitments over the next few weeks if I don't have a vehicle. And since I live in the RV, I'm also effectively homeless until it gets repaired.

I'll be able to fly to Atlanta to fulfill my commitments there and, hopefully, the Dolphin can be road-ready by the time I fly back next week.

Any donations will be deeply appreciated. Thanks in advance.

The Wandering Guru