“Taking Certain Things for Granted in Training”


Written by: WS Bumgarner Dojo-cho Atlanta GiYu Dojo


Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Ohio to train with Sukh Sandhu and others from the Giyu Dojo.  The trip was brief (only 48 hours) but our time was well spent on a variety of topics, such as sword, naginata, and ne waza (ground techniques).   Our group also made time for some firearms training and taped a Giyu Dojo rank DVD.  To say we were busy would be an understatement.  During that time, the training that made the biggest impression on me was the class we had called “no gi training.”  The idea sounds simple enough- I train like I have done hundreds of times but this time I don’t wear my traditional uniform, but I wear only a T-shirt and shorts.  No problem, right?

Normally I wear a traditional hakama and keiko top or, when we focus on ground fighting or grappling, I wear a standard gi top and pants.  Beyond making sure my uniform is clean and put on correctly up until this moment I had thought very little about what wearing it meant to me in training.   We practiced like normal but techniques had to be adjusted to be effective.  The changes weren’t huge but they were vital to making things work correctly.  We finished class and headed home. 

It wasn’t until much later that it dawned on me that my uniform, and maybe more importantly, my expectation of my opponent wearing an identical uniform to the one I was used to practicing with had become a crutch.   I am sure there are other martial artists who, like me, have thought little about how hard or completely unrealistic it might be to use their art to defend him if conditions weren’t perfect like they are in the dojo.  It isn’t an earth-shattering thought that the odds of being in a situation where you need to use your skills to defend yourself will not be in the dojo with you or your opponent(s) in a traditional martial arts uniform.  If you study an art that stresses grappling the question is simple: Can you accomplish your throw, lock, pin, sweep, break…etc, if your opponent is wearing clothing with no sleeves, collar, lapel or belt?  If you study an art that stresses powerful striking the question is simple: Can you accomplish your punch, high kick, elbow, knee strike…etc, if you are wearing a business suit that severely limits your range of movement or shoes that are slippery and loose?  If you don’t know the answers to these questions then you might want to take a few moments and think honestly about where you are, or where your students are, in their training.

In the beginning it is appropriate to take a somewhat passive role in your training.  Your sensei tells you what to do and you do it without asking many questions or thinking too much, having faith in what your teacher tells you and understanding that even if your teacher told you everything he knew about training you wouldn’t magically achieve his skill level over night.  Like most lessons worth learning in life they reveal themselves in their own time, when it is appropriate, and not before a tremendous amount of work has been done.  I have done techniques for years, hundreds of times, and been struck literally in mid-sentence while teaching with some insight into a particular technique.  Those moments are incredibly rewarding and addictive. 

Once someone reaches a certain skill level, no matter what they study, that art demands more of them than just showing up on a regular basis and doing their best impersonation of a baby bird, mouth wide open waiting to be fed.  I understand that it is not everyone’s goal who trains in martial arts to take their training so seriously, but it is for me, and I think for all the other members of the Giyu Dojo.  I have actually heard people say that the reason they quit training was because “It wasn’t fun anymore.”  If I wanted to have “fun” I would go to Disney World with my kids.  Besides, if someone told you that they were going to teach you how to fish and that was the only way for you to eat and feed your family I imagine your desire to comprehend even the smallest detail would be tremendous and your focus would be as sharp as a laser.  I know some people train for reasons other than self defense but I honestly don’t know why.  Reducing martial arts to an exercise routine is like using a car for a paper weight.  It can be effective if used this way but seems to be missing the broader point. 

 I think it’s important to understand that just because I can set up very specific conditions (i.e. type of gi top) that create a scenario where I have given myself the greatest probability of success with my technique might not have any basis in reality.  I have no misconception that just because I can sing along with the radio in my car that I will be the next winner on “American Idol.”  I sound great in the car but this has nothing to do with reality.  I still can’t sing, but for a moment I have created the scenario where I have fooled myself into believing something that is not true.  In most situations this self deception is harmless, but if your goal is to protect yourself and your family from danger this could have tragic consequences.

 When I started examining my assumption about the uniform I started looking at everything that I took for granted in training.  The uniform was just the tip of the iceberg.  Almost everything about training was part of a well-worn routine.  Where I train, when I train, how I train, who I train with, the weapons I use, even the climate controlled temperature of the dojo were all conditions that joined together to create a very consistent and comfortable training experience.  Consistency in training is a great thing as long as it doesn’t induce blindness and complacency. 

As head of the Atlanta Giyu Dojo, any complacency in training would have to fall squarely on my shoulders.  Martial artists are just like anyone else, they are susceptible to the lure of contentment with their past achievements.  In fact, I have heard several times that the fastest way to end someone’s study of martial arts is to give them rank.  Now, this might mean they stop training or they decide to open their own school. Either way, their studying days are over. 

After experiencing the “no gi training” in Dayton I have a great desire to challenge many of our training assumptions at our home dojo.  Maybe one class we work in jeans and sneakers, or on a hot Atlanta day we turn the air conditioning off, or we practice grappling with no mats.  However we augment our training my hope is that it breaks down our limitations and helps to build not only a suppleness of body but also of mind that seems to be so important in the study of any martial art.