Thoughts On Choosing a Martial Arts School
by Pat Goltz
These are just a few of my ruminations on the subject of choosing a martial arts school.
In choosing a martial arts school, there are a number of things to consider.
Let me start by talking about spiritual issues. There are basically two schools of thought, it seems to me. One follows the eastern religious implications of the original martial art. The other remains spiritually neutral, or takes a Christian approach. I have been involved in all sorts of martial arts schools, spiritually speaking, except the extreme eastern approach. The distinguishing feature, the thing that seems to separate the schools is whether or not the schools have any kind of meditation practice. In my personal experience, meditation practice consists of people sitting quietly together, and doing whatever they really feel like doing, as long as they are completely quiet. In the one school I attended where they did meditation, they gave instructions on how to meditate, but after that, if one didn't want to follow the instructions, and wanted to use the quiet time in another way, one was free to do so. I told the instructor that I would be doing my meditation differently, because I am a Christian, but that no one would be aware of this. He accepted that. So whenever we meditated, I prayed directly to God, thanking Him for the training opportunity, and for blessing me with health so that I could study, and things like that. The distinction between meditation methods is that in nonchristian meditation, the person focuses inward, while in Christian meditation, the person focuses outward toward God. So nonchristian meditation is egocentric, while Christian meditation is relational. One final distinction between the two types of meditation is that nonchristian meditation tends to be anti-thought and anti-intellectual, while Christian meditation is an active thinking process. I am aware of nonchristian meditation practices that involve active thinking, but the majority are not. Many consist of trying to empty the mind of all thought. I will make some personal remarks about that later, some personal opinions. But for now, I just want to explain things objectively.
Another aspect of the spiritual practice is the teaching of spiritual ki. Ki is known as chi in Chinese. Ki is the force in martial arts. Ki consists of three types of force. Physical ki consists of things like how one uses one's muscles, how one moves to be effective, using techniques that take advantage of the laws of phhysics, that sort of thing. In taekwondo, we study the theory of power. This is rather a study of the physics, or maybe the biophysics, of applying force. Because taekwondo is a hard style, the emphasis is on using natural forces to create power. The study of physical ki is really a study of how to cause the moving part of the body that delivers the blow, to move with as high a velocity as possible. Velocity is a component that has a much greater impact on delivered force than the mass of the moving part. This is why you can do things like break a board with the hand, or even the fingertips. In hard style martial arts, physical ki is the most important component in things like board breaking. The second kind of ki is mental ki. This consists of the way in which one uses one's mind to perform a technique properly to maximize physical ki. It also consists of believing that the board will break, and not becoming victim to various things that will prevent you from breaking the board, such as failure to penetrate the board. One major distinction between hard style and soft style martial arts seems to be the speed with which techniques are done. Soft style technique seems to involve much slower motions, motions that travel shorter distances, and motions that are flowing in nature. By themselves, these techniques, if used as taught, will not result in breaking power. In hard styles, full force is used in forms. The emphasis is on executing the techniques in such a way that potentially they could break boards if there were boards in position. Thus, while both styles make full use of both physical and mental ki, most soft style schools will add a spiritual component, called spiritual ki, to technique. For this reason, it appears that soft style schools tend to be much more eastern in their philosophical approach.
I am going to digress for just a moment and talk from a more personal perspective. My perspective here is distinctly Christian. I got a lot of these ideas from the writings of the Christian Black Belt Association. But part of the reason for this is that I was already developing these ideas; the CBBA just described them clearly and succinctly. Spiritual ki involves either the utilization of psychic abilities believed to be part of our untapped potential, or the utilization of powers and abilities made available to us by spiritual entities. In my experience, people usually think in terms of these being ingrained psychic abilities. In my opinion, these are abilities being made available by spiritual entities. From the Christian perspective, the spiritual entities involved are regarded as demons, and this is why I personally do not recommend that a person practice eastern spiritual methods. While each person has to make the decisions about how to practice for herself, I believe in trying to make people aware of what the possibilities are, so they can make their training decisions with full knowledge.
I remember one time going to a festival where many different demonstrations of martial arts were given. One demonstration sticks out in my mind. It was a brick-breaking demonstration, and the person doing the demo had a high ranking black belt. It was a soft style martial art. I think he had twelve bricks, and he used the thin scalloped ones you use to make garden borders, and set them up with spacers to take maximum advantage of the physical forces that he would now be renouncing by using a slow technique. He told us up front that he would be using a slow technique. Just for the heck of it, I bound in prayer any external spiritual entities that would be assisting him. When he did the break, he actually ended up pushing the stack over sideways, unbalancing it. The only bricks that broke were the ones that hit the ground at the right angle, and not all of them did. The look of startlement on his face was astounding! This man was not used to not being able to break the bricks. This little experiment of mine proves absolutely nothing at all, but I did find it very, very interesting. I think it does give us pause to consider the possibility that a person's physical prowess and training can be beaten by a prayer of which he is not even aware. Certainly such a person should not boast of his abilities!
I also had a conversation once with a friend who is studying tai chi. She has fragile bones, so this martial art may well be the only one she can practice. She told me that her instructor could throw a person across the room with the touch of a finger. That is spiritual ki. I know one Christian pastor who practices tai chi, and I asked him about the spiritual issues. From what he said, one can practice tai chi without ever getting involved in spiritual ki. I used to worry about the same issues with aikido. I think aikido practitioners use spiritual ki more often than taekwondo practitioners, but I have learned that aikido is also very much involved in natural forces of physics. I first did a few spiritual ki type exercises, with a friend who was interested in aikido. The techniques work, but when I thought about where the techniques may be coming from, I chose not to pursue them.
I think this points out something important. We are all sinners. We can unknowingly pursue a nonchristian spiritual pursuit, but we have a duty to investigate and think things through. If and when we decide a given technique has spiritual implications unacceptable to the Christian, we must stop practicing it and ask for forgiveness. This does not mean that we should abandon the martial arts, but rather that we should reclaim them for Christ.
I want to become objective again once more to point out one final distinction in philosophy. This is the AMOUNT of philosophy instilled, and what you might call the basic presupposition behind the philosophy. Most taekwondo schools teach personal responsibility. Most teach the students not to abuse the martial art, but to use it for the encouragement of world peace, rather along the lines of arming the population in self defense to act as a deterrent to violence. A few schools are run by men with an attitude. These schools will teach the students to do whatever works, even if it involves cheating, to defeat an enemy, and they believe in demonstrating one's personal prowess. The students of these schools come to tournaments with an attitude. Aggression is the name of the game. This is anti-responsibility. I think all you'd have to do to discover whether a school is like this is to visit one class. If the instructor seems to be full of himself, run like heck! If you learn early on that you guessed wrong, you can still leave. In my experience, schools with an opening and/or closing ceremony of some kind tend not to be this way. The ceremony need not be elaborate. Also these schools will teach respect for each other through bows and other signs of courtesy. In our school, we open and close by reciting both the student oath and the tenets. These come from General Choi. Not all schools use the same student oath. The one we use is as follows:"I shall observe the tenets of taekwondo.
I shall respect instructors and seniors.
I shall never misuse taekwondo.
I shall be a champion of freedom and justice.
I shall build a more peaceful world."
The tenets are either five or six, depending on whether the last one is omitted. They are: "courtesy, integrity, perseverence, self control, indomitable spirit, victory."
In a school where I go to spar sometimes, they have a very different oath. Each line begins with "We as members..."
Now I want to make you aware of these different approaches in philosophy so that you can knowingly choose a school that shares your philosophical perspective. A few of the Christian schools will openly talk about the Christian faith as part of instruction. Most don't. I once attended a taekwondo school run by a Christian pastor who has a fourth degree black belt. We rarely discussed the Christian faith in class. However, we sometimes talked about the fact that in the past, members of the school sometimes gave demonstrations in which the skills were shown along with patter about the Christian faith, relevant to what people were seeing. Sometimes, for example, in sparring demonstrations, it would be put into a context of the battle between good and evil, with good winning in the end. I have talked to other Christian instructors online who have told me that they will use illustrations from the Bible as part of their discussion of martial arts techniques and philosophy, such as studying what it means to be a Christian warrior. In my personal experience, this approach is relatively rare, but well worth doing. The vast majority of taekwondo schools seem to try to tread on some sort of neutral ground.
Having dealt with the issue of the philosophy of a given school, the next consideration is the style of martial art taught. Since my experience is heavily concentrated on taekwondo, I will leave the discussions of other martial arts for the experts, and consider taekwondo alone.
The style we practice is called chun do chuan, which means "school of the blue wave." It is the original style of modern taekwondo, developed by General Choi Hong Hi, who was responsible for making taekwondo the national sport of Korea in 1955. He now lives in the United States, and recently assissted in developing a cdrom set containing his full encyclopedia and movies of the 24 forms of the original form set (I call them the chun gee forms, because I can never remember their real name), made under his supervision. Chun do chuan is distinguished by movements made along the lines of a sine wave. Thus, a movement that will end up in a low position starts in a high position, for example. The style is characterized by very deep chambers. A chamber is the initial position of the technique, the position from which the movement begins. It involves full extension or retraction of the body part in the opening position. Thus, because movements follow a sine wave, it is known as the school of the blue wave. This style is also characterized by the use of reaction force, especially with hand techniques. Great emphasis is placed on using an opposing body part moving in the opposite direction to increase the velocity of the part executing the technique. Motion originates in the hips, and by moving the opposite limb, the motion of the hips is increased in speed and scope. Although many schools do not practice this, General Choi also teaches his students to rise in height and settle into all techniques. I use that with a few techniques, but not most. I think it is wasteful of energy and does not improve the effectiveness of the technique. This also follows the sine wave idea.
Another important aspect of technique that goes to the issue of schools is stances. In the school where I began my training, stances were emphasized. The instructor taught us to make our stances very square, which is to say that the feet are either completely parallel or very much at a right angle to each other. Some people will teach a front stance where the back foot is slightly angled outward, but in my personal experience, you have a better base for the production of power if you can point your toes forward such that your feet are parallel to each other. In that school, because we used the chun gee forms, we did not learn the sparring stance, but in the song ahm forms, it is used. The sparring stance is properly done with the feet parallel to each other also, but the person is facing at a 45 degree angle. When observing to see if the school emphasizes stances, see if the high ranking students keep their feet parallel or at right angles (except be prepared to observe back feet pointed slightly outward in a front stance) at all times. I recommend attending a school where proper stances are taught. It should not be the major thing that people work on, but it should be important. I am very grateful to the instructor at my first school for emphasizing stances.
A separate issue from style is the set of forms taught. Sets of forms can be taught in different styles. In my current school, we learn three sets of forms: chun gee, song ahm, and combat. Most schools teach only one set. Chun gee forms are characterized by emphasizing the learning of basic technique. These forms are the best, in my opinion, for teaching the most basic technique correctly. Advanced kicks are not used except in the higher forms. I prefer the chun gee forms above all others. Song ahm forms emphasize kicks. Advanced kicks are taught sooner. They are a lot of fun to do. Combat forms are peculiar to the taekwondo association to which our school belongs: the National Taekwondo Federation of America. They were developed by the founder and president of NTFA, Master Brown. The NTFA is not a large association by most standards, and was formed rather recently. Combat forms are probably never taught as the primary set of forms, and are supplemental. Other sets of forms include the tae guk forms. The Korean flag is known as the tae guk. I have done a few tae guk forms. I don't really care for them. They seem to have less variety in technique than any I have observed, which means that you learn the techniques more slowly. That is just my personal opinion. There may well be a good couple dozen different sets of taekwondo forms, but these are the most common.
There are a number of different national or international taekwondo associations. The biggest is the International Taekwondo Federation. General Choi is associated with it. Another big one is the American Taekwondo Federation. I think there is also an American Taekwondo Association, but I don't know for sure. I don't keep up with the ins and outs of the politics in these associations, but they usually formed when a strong leader could no longer agree with the head of the existing association. The major ways in which the association a school is affiliated with affects a student seems to be in promotion criteria and other ways that do not really affect the student until s/he gains significant rank. I like the NTFA. One of the big ways association affiliation seems to affect advancement is in board breaking requirements. Most taekwondo schools break boards. Some break bricks as well. On the average, a person seeking the rank of first degree black belt is required to break one board at a time. If a person has a reason to be more skilled, s/he can test by breaking two boards held together. Another difference is in the number of tries a student gets. In our association, the requirement is that two boards at two different stations (one board at each location, for a total of two techniques) have to be broken in sequence on the first try for a perfect score. People testing for black belt just about have to get one perfect score in breaking to pass. In our school, we do two sets of breaks. One is prescribed by the NTFA, which gives several different options in terms of combinations. The other is one of our own choosing. If a person fails to get one perfect score in breaking, then the tester will usually require a supplemental break. If that break is completed successfully, the person will pass. The first time I tested for black belt, I flunked only because I failed to break my boards well enough. Because of my age, if I had had the same problem the second time around, the third time I tested, I would be given a different requirement. Most women of my age are not excellent at board breaking. It becomes dangerous for a woman of advanced age to break stacks of boards, and usually we are not required to do so. For this reason, advanced rank is considered "honorary" which I think is totally misplaced, because to me the philosophy is more critical to one's qualifications, and the older one gets, the better understanding of philosophy one has. One begins to truly understand the oath and tenets.
More basically to all of these considerations is just to talk about what is taught and tested. Taekwondo schools all teach forms, as far as I know. They also all tend to have one steps, or three step sparring. One steps are like short forms, but with a partner, and each school has its own. If you change schools, you have to learn new ones. Taekwondo schools also teach sparring. Usually, a white belt does just forms and one steps. Occasionally, white belts are encouraged to spar, but they are not usually tested on it. The next rank in nearly all schools is yellow belt. This may be subdivided into yellow and orange. Most schools do not teach sparring at the yellow belt level, either, but some schools allow it, or may designate that certain students have enough skill to be allowed to spar, while others do not. Nearly all schools actively teach sparring as soon as a student moves above yellow belt. It will also be included in testing at that time. There are many different systems of ranks in the colored belts. Above yellow belt, you cannot tell by looking at the color who is more advanced than whom, until you get to just below black belt. At that point, all students have either red or brown belts. In between, you find blues and greens and purples. Most schools have ten ranks below black belt. In some schools, including all three I attended, these ranks are further subdivided into "recommended" and "decided", and it is possible to advance only a half rank at a time. Usually, one does not learn a new form until one earns a "recommended" or above in that rank. Thus, if you advance only a half rank, you will only learn one new form every other testing. Advancing only a half rank is not common. Most people advance a full rank; a few exceptionally skilled people may advance a rank and a half from time to time. Thus, if one has prior martial arts experience in another style, one may well advance more rapidly than average, especially at first. So one is not really starting over completely.
In my experience, the only time a student can advance more than a rank and a half at a time is in KemScrima Doh. This martial art is quite similar to taekwondo, but it is more eclectic. It has a few soft style techniques. It is not widely practiced; it is a relatively new martial art. I hold the rank of purple belt in that art. I probably would have advanced two ranks at a time for awhile in that art if I had not been driven out by local politics. I hope to get back into it. I did advance two ranks the first and only time I tested. In that art, all students are allowed to attempt any form for any rank, as long as they master the form for their rank. This is unique in martial arts, which are usually very rigid about not teaching a form for a rank above your own. (They neither require nor permit board breaking in KemScrima Doh, at testing. And they do very little sparring.)
Other things one might watch for in evaluating how well a given school teaches technique are a little harder to pin down. In my personal opinion, I like to see a school teach students to do certain blocks with the elbow bent at a 135 degree angle, because this is where maximum muscle power is exerted. I think all taekwondo schools teach a person to use a twist in all hand techniques. But I can't swear to it. In this idea, one will start with the hand or fist in one position relative to the arm or body, and end up with the hand or fist turned the opposite way at the end of the technique. This twisting motion that makes this possible increases the force of the blow, because it brings all muscles into play. For example, if I am going to do a punch to the front of my body, I will start with my fist next to my waist, with the fingers upward. When the punch is completed, my fingers will be downward. Or, if I am doing a knife hand, I will start with my palm upward alongside my ear, and the blow will finish with my palm pointing to the ground. If you happen to notice that this is not emphasized in a school, particularly if some students are doing it and others not, they are probably not very good at teaching technique. Now I want to qualify this by saying that teaching good technique may not be the most important consideration. In the school I presently attend, technique is emphasized a lot less than it was in my first school, but I actually prefer this school because the woman who teaches there is one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever known, and she nurtures all of her students to excellence. This means that one may not learn proper technique to begin with (which I consider a drawback because it means you practice wrong technique for a long time, and it can come back and bite you), but once a student becomes capable, she will make sure you are doing things properly. The more you can absorb, the more particular she will be with you. But there is the opportunity for a person who has physical problems that prevent the use of excruciatingly proper technique. I strongly recommend that a person first attend a school that emphasizes technique, to get the basics and save a lot of headache, and if a person doesn't like the instructor, to switch schools once s/he have the basics. Another alternative is to choose a school where you like the philosophy and attitude, and with the instructor's permission seek help in perfecting technique from one of the black belts in the school, or even by private lesson with the instructor.
While on the subject of evaluating technique, another thing to look for is what part of the foot is used for striking. Whether or not a foot technique can break a board depends heavily on what part of the foot strikes the board. I will give a few examples. In a front kick, you strike with the ball of the foot, toes curled back. With a side kick, you strike with the outside edge of the foot, leading with the heel. This means the foot has to be cocked so that the outside edge points toward the target, and the toes and foot are pulled back so that the leading surface is the side to bottom of the heel. Pinpointing the force into a tiny part of the anatomy in this way puts all the force of the blow into a tiny spot on the board, which makes it much easier to break it. If you observe that people consistently strike with these parts of the foot, chances are the school emphasizes technique.
Once a person reaches a rank close to red or brown belt, s/he may be required to break boards in testing. People usually break boards long before that, but do not have to break boards in testing. People who reach red or brown belt usually are required to demonstrate self defense techniques, or may be asked to make up their own forms or one steps. In some schools, red or brown belts will also be required to break bricks. Not all schools require brick breaking, and for some, it is required that you attempt it, but that you break the brick is not. Most schools use those flat concrete block bricks that are 18" long and 9" wide. Our school does not even have any bricks on the premises. I was relieved, because I believe that I would cause significant damage to my body if I attempted to break a brick with full force. I think the instructor knows this, which is why she does not require it of anybody. I have no idea how difficult it is to break bricks. I have never done it successfully, and I have only tried it a couple of times. One doesn't need to be able to break a brick to break a bone in one's attacker.
One other thing I would like to talk about is the issue of just which martial art is most suitable for each person. I like to see people learn more than one martial art, but aside from that, this is largely up to the preference of the individual. I first started in judo because I liked the idea of not harming my opponent but learning to control and subdue him. I learned fairly quickly, however, that judo is not nearly as suited for this as I first thought. Many of the techniques depend for their success on what kind of clothing a person is wearing. It is a good martial art for a person whose primary concern is not self defense. I have thought long and hard about whether to take up judo again, and I am leaning more toward hapkido. I have a certain affection for judo because it is where I started, but practical considerations tell me that I am probably better off choosing a martial art based on how it can round out my arsenal of self defense techniques. For pure enjoyment, I also wish to learn wing chun. This is because my favorite thing to do in martial arts is forms, and I like wing chun forms. It is also why I took up KemScrima Doh.
This pretty well summarizes the kinds of things I look for in a martial arts school. As far as I am concerned, philosophy comes first. Technique is also important, but if a school has the right philosophy, one should reject it only for consistently teaching poor technique. If good technique can be learned there, then philosophy becomes the only major consideration. Different martial arts suit different personalities. There is no one right or wrong martial art for everyone. It is good to have this kind of freedom of choice.
My appreciation to Wizzle for some of the background material.