As Practical As You Make It

What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree

I can’t pay the bills yet,
‘Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.
But somehow I can’t shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the human race.


I actually have a BA (hons) in English, so when this came out during my university days, it was quickly seized upon by my friends in the more respectable faculties. Of course, our lives have all diverged greatly since then, and I may have a BA in English, but I am also living my best life as an instructor.

But back to the issue of practicality. What’s practical about a Bachelor of Arts? What’s practical about karate in an age of guns, knives and pepper spray? Most people start a martial art with self-defence as a primary motive, and they are not mistaken in seeking this goal in their training. However, building the necessary muscle memory, calmness and repertoire necessary for self-defence takes several dedicated years, whereas most people assume it’ll take mere months.


I’ve written before about how much people underestimate how much work goes into being basically competent — never mind skilled — at something. It’s the training montage effect, that six weeks or six months is enough to match wits with someone who has been training for years. The Karate Kid is still the worst offender of this trope, as David Wong puts it. When it comes to the practicality of the martial arts, and especially traditional styles, it takes a long time to build the foundation necessary for a wider self-defence application. It does not happen over a weekend workshop.

Modern martial arts would never have survived the advent of the gun if there weren’t a number of vastly important and useful tools to be gained from a formal martial arts education. Just as a toolbox does not only contain a hammer, practicing martial arts is not only for self-defence. The longer one trains, the better equipped we will be to face a variety of challenges. In this toolbox, my favourite tool is discipline. (And here my metaphors fall apart, since the only tools I own are a Leatherman 19-piece, a hammer, some screwdrivers, and a camping Swiss army knife.)


“True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline.”
— Mortimer J. Adler


Discipline is what truly sets us free, as it allows us to take control of ourselves given any situation. To follow the Stoic example, we cannot control all that happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. As Marcus Aurelius, the king of Stoicism puts it: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” 


Similar to the Japanese concepts of  mushin, or mizu no kokoro, we react only as necessary, and as much, as the situation deserves. The mind is still, like the surface of a lake. It reacts only when disturbed, then it ripples and rapidly returns to its stillness once more.


Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from anger, fear, or the ego during combat or everyday life.

Discipline, with its suggestions of self-regulation and mindfulness, allows us to control how we interact with the world around us, rather than being helplessly buffeted by circumstance. It is the choice to not overeat, to go for a run on a winter’s morning, or to calmly withstand the irritations of modern living without being overwhelmed. It is the ability to withstand the storms of life without taking on water and sinking.

“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”
― Seneca

This all comes from the large and small disciplines of training: the neatness of a gi, the hierarchy, the courtesy, the patience to repeat something hundreds of times. Learning to accept criticism of a technique and posture with grace, and the humility to copy (at least for the first, long while) while we are beginners. Just as a toddler can only learn to walk through imitation, so we must be humble enough to accept how little we know and to copy as best we can the teachings of those who have gone before us. (For more, read up here on shu-ha-ri.)

It is difficult for the exceptionalist, individualist Western mind to accept this kind of top-down guidance, but this is largely because we mistakenly carry over expertise in other areas into the dojo, when in fact the knowledge is rarely transferrable. It would be as arrogant as walking into a university physics lecture with a background in primary school mathematics, and expecting to parse the complexity of the subject matter right away. Similarly, a Westerner whose entire understanding of martial arts has been formed from movies and anecdotes is not even remotely equipped to understand the actual mechanics and application of genuine traditional martial arts. They must empty their cup, as it were, and start afresh. This is where the lesson truly begins.

“Be honest in your efforts, and balanced in your expectations.” -Michael Clarke, The Art of Hojo Undo

It takes time to cover the basics and build a foundation. It also requires humility and honesty in our approach. Just as a professional baker must learn to make cookies before croissants, a beginner must first learn how to punch properly before dealing with multiple attackers. Unfortunately, nearly everyone wants to jump straight to the cool stuff, and when they can’t or aren’t allowed to do it, then they quit.


It’s the skills and tools we learn and gain on the path to mastery that truly matter. I may not be able to execute a technique that would impress a fifth dan, but I have also learned to fight for two hours without stopping. I am not, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, a phenomenal practitioner, a polished example of karate-do. But what matters is that, over more than a dozen years of practice, I have learned to find and trust my own strength and skill.  That confidence and growth alone is priceless, and is very difficult to measure given our limited ideas of what success looks like.

There’s no real shortcut up the mountain, even if you are rich enough to hire sherpas to carry everything for you. Perhaps you are talented, and your burden is that much lighter (the number of sherpas you have), but you still have to get yourself to the top. And sure, for the smart-asses out there, yes you can get a helicopter to drop you at the top. Well done – that means you’ve joined a McDojo, where black belts are only a matter of cost, not effort. You have gained and learned nothing, and it will be made evident if you ever have to go toe-to-toe with someone who has the experience and grit.

So, after all this: is it still practical to do a martial art, even with guns? Yes, but only if you accept that the best self-defence is prevention, and that part comes from all the other tools you learn along the way. Whatever style you train in, it will be as practical as you choose to make it.

Returning to the Dojo

Looking for translated copies of this? Please jump to the bottom! 

It seems inevitable for many students – after years of dedicated training (or even just months), the training begins to slow down. Sometimes, it just stops suddenly, and there’s a conspicuous gap where a senior used to be. A pocket of quiet where a boisterous teen used to stand and idly nudge the punching bag while listening to instructions.

No student slips away unnoticed.

There are a thousand demands on our time, many beyond our control. Money must be earned, marks attained, sports teams made. Families require an investment of quality time, and for many teenagers, just getting to the dojo relies on parental availability and willingness. Sometimes, it’s as simple as an injury that dragged on and suddenly, it’s two months off the mat.

One missed class can easily become three. Three classes becomes a month. Then six. Then a year. And then there’s a day when you open your cupboard and there is your gi, hanging up and gathering dust. Waiting. (And silently judging you.)

“But what will Sensei think?” the student wonders, before slowly closing the door. “I can’t go back after so long.”

Oh, but you can. You can always come back. 99% of the time, your Sensei will be utterly delighted to see you return. All that matters is that you make the decision to put your gi on and get to the dojo. Oh, sure, there might be excuses, like…

But I’m so unfit!
So few people are genuinely fit anyway. If fitness was a precondition for martial arts, very few of us would get to start. Fitness comes back much faster than you think, and honestly? It’s not that important.   

What if my friends aren’t there anymore?
Then you’ll make new ones. A dojo is always in flux, so you’ll meet new people and make new dojo family. I’ve been in so many dojos, both because of moving and being a deshi, I know that you’ll soon find a good training partner and your own groove.

I never told Sensei why I left
Look, very few instructors are soft and fluffy and wear dreamcatchers. But your Sensei is human (very much so) and probably isn’t holding a grudge. (Disclaimer: I can’t speak for all instructors.) Just come back (bearing chocolate helps) and say sorry, and ask to train again. It sucks to ask, but it is also pretty hurtful when students disappear and text messages, calls and emails go unanswered.

I can’t remember it all anymore
You are not starting at the bottom – everything you learned is somewhere in your head. It just needs a gentle reminder and some dusting off, and things will start to flow back again.

A wise man named James Clear gives some great physics-related advice on how to stay committed to something. The whole post is well worth reading, but I simply wish to use this rule:


Losing momentum is the cause of so many failed hobbies, talents, dreams and projects. In trying to get any major goal accomplished, we forget that it is made of a thousand little steps. A black belt is only the sum of hundreds of classes, not a special talent. You don’t have to do amazing feats: you just have to go to class every week. Every class you can, except when you really, really can’t.

If you have a virus, stay out the dojo. If you have an exam tomorrow, then study. Big family thing? Even Chojun Miyagi believed that family comes first. But tired? Busy? But not so busy that you can watch two episodes of Game of Thrones?

Get your gi on and get thee to a dojo! 

UPDATE: Wow! Over 33,000 hits and shares! Thank you to the global karate community for sharing this! I would love to hear from you, so please do leave a comment and share your stories.

UPDATE 2: I am overwhelmed by the wide support for this article, and the patience so many have shown in translating it! If you would like to share and support these amazing martial artists, their work is below:

In German:

In Spanish: and

In Hebrew: Returning to the Dojo Hebrew translation by Guy Goldsmith (downloadable pdf)

Hojo Undo 101: Chishi

A number of people look at martial artists and think, ‘do you even lift, bro?’

Actually, yes, we do lift, bro. We lift asymmetrical weights and grip things and punch objects of high resistance (ie: planks of wood). Hoju undo is supplementary training, designed to improve the physique through simple, repetitive weight and resistance training. Correct training with hojo undo implements assists in faster and stronger movement as well as improved posture and coordination. It sounds too good to be true, but be warned – the work is hard and doesn’t come in shiny plastics and coordinated colours. The implements used in hojo undo are made from stone and wood, and now have their modern counterparts in kettlebells and barbells.

For this post, I will be focussing on the chishi. If there’s anything you think I’ve missed or should be corrected on, please let me know in the comments.

Disclaimer: as with all martial arts techniques/ideas/training, your mileage may vary, and please consult your local wise Sensei and a physio/biokinectist before attempting anything. All of the below is the product of my own research and could be wrong. (It happens.)



What is the chishi?

Made up of the words power/strength (chi) and ishi (stone), it sounds like something the Power Rangers might use (and now you’ll never forget what it means). Made up of a wooden rod embedded in a stone, it is used to strengthen the wrists, grip and forearms. With the correct exercises, it can also build the triceps, lats and deltoids. It is relatively cheap to make yourself – you just need a broomstick, some grout or leftover concrete, and a yoghurt container. Here’s a video on making your ownHere’s an example of an adjustable, home-made chishi made using gym equipment by

In essence:

The chishi, or stone lever weight, provides resistance by forcing the user to overcome the effects of leverage and load, which aids in strengthening muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and bones. The range of motion with the chishi is greater than with a conventional dumbbell, and since it is unbalanced on one end, more effort is required to control the weight, and various muscle groups can be exercised at one time within a sequence of movements.

– Supplementary Training For Miyagi Chojun’s Goju Ryu Karate hosted by Porta’s Karate (this entire article is a wonderful insight into the history of supplementary training in Goju Ryu.

How to use chishi

No matter how strong you may think you are, if you’re just starting out with chishi it is best to start with a light one – under 2kgs, if possible. It requires a great deal of concentration and precision to do the exercises without injury, and a heavy chishi coupled with inexperience is asking for a long term injury. Incorrect usage can damage the soft tissues and ligaments. As mentioned in this excellent and well-researched post:

However, the chishi is also capable of causing and encouraging poor movement and control of the shoulder joints (particularly the glenohumeral and acromioclavicular articulations) and scapulae. Several of the standard chishi training exercises involve two movements that are especially problematic for these structures:

  • movement of the weight over head and behind one’s back, a la a back scratcher or a triceps kick back

  • internal rotation, or moving the end of the weight towards the body’s center with an extended arm

– Fight Sciences Research Institute (it is a very long and complex post, but it is filled with important wisdom regarding proper form)

And as further mentioned in the article regarding Sensei Miyagi’s chishi training:

As to the actual motions, the chishi should always be moved slowly and deliberately with the weight under control at all times, never using momentum or “swing” to move from one position to another. This controlled motion aids in neuroeducating the muscles, joints, and ligaments to not only work in communication with each other, but also to react quickly and forcefully when called upon to do so. (emphasis mine)

And now for shiny videos!

A series of chishi combinations: techniques only

Further resources:

Dento Karate – Traditional Chishi Training Video 

Get More Out of Your Chishi Training with Proper Kinematics – Fight Sciences Research Institute

Beloved Dojo

More ninjas

Fun times, Grading 2008

It is with great sadness that I announce the closure of a dojo very, very dear to my heart.

Goju Ryu at Rhodes University is where I met my dearest friends and learned a great deal about who I am, and what it is that I’m capable of. We travelled together, we partied together, and sometimes we cried together. We shared gradings, secrets, laughs and pizza and it breaks my heart to think that it will be no more.

Ninjas go for it

Grading, October 2009

So, beloved Goju Ryu, thank you. Thank you to Clint-sensei for all his wisdom on and off the mat. Thank you to my mentors Jon and Thomas for all they taught me. To all those who were willing to learn from me, and all those who were willing to teach me, train with me, endure me, my most heartfelt thanks.

Perhaps all I can promise is to continue my training in good spirit, and to remember that Goju Ryu will continue, but only if we all look after our art and ourselves.

Little ninjas

Goju Ryu, 2006 club photo

So, so long and thanks for everything. I am forever grateful for the opportunities to meet the people I have met, to learned so many things and to have grown stronger and better for it.

RU Goju Ryu…you will be sorely, deeply missed.

Something I wrote a while ago…

Here’s a piece I wrote after a particularly rough training session at Aikido. I thought it might be a good start to the blog.

Of course its not fucking easy.

Of course there’s pain.

Your arm gets wrenched like a stubborn anchor from rocks, your head snaps back too fast, you hit the ground harder than you thought possible, and bruises proliferate on areas where bone meets the ground with the barest layer of flesh between. Your body becomes a steady ache in an unsteady frame, knees like water and spine like string. Fear of more pain, more humiliation, makes the blood leave your face, and every move becomes an exercise in hesitation, and all you want to do is to leave the mat, to curl up in the dirty bathrooms outside and cradle your wounded ego and uselessness and sob like the little girl you know you still are inside.

Because nothing in my life prepared me for the acceptance of pain. We are completely hardwired to avoid it, not to look for it. We have no true memory of pain, can never recall what it really felt like that day your coccyx cracked or your elbow was pushed in directions antithetical to its purpose. Oh, maybe you remember that you were squirming at the time, that you could barely walk and picking up a book satchel was agony. The memories are vague, but that sense of pain is hardly there. We have no memory, so that we can never get used to it, and ever lose our fear. We can never make peace with it.

But we keep going back.

We go back to the reminder that we are dumb, weak and uncoordinated. That, only after seven years of dedication, are we considered worthy enough to really commence training. Only then are we taken at all seriously as students. Only then are we bearable idiots. There is no praise. Gradings are the only sign of progress, the only acknowledgment of the work you do for those few nods. It all boils down to you and your self-discipline. I have to be able to shelve my whimpering ego, my problems and my pain and remember that this is no short trip. This is not a three-year degree, or a puppy for Christmas. This is a life-long journey. And either do it properly, or fuck off.

Fuck it, I know it’s not supposed to be about others. I know I should do it for myself, without needing praise. I should do it for the sake of the art, and not for my ego to be endlessly coddled because my body is too weak and my mind too small to fully grasp the concepts. I have to accept that I am stupid and slow and hesitant and that I have no natural capacity. I don’t flow, I twitch. I don’t land, I crash.

Martial arts never claimed to be for everyone, much less for those without talent. After a certain point, there is no space for stupidity and self-indulgent whining. This is not a game. People get injured and if I don’t keep my focus, I could hurt someone. If I am not wholly focused, I could get myself killed.

I am privileged to study with the teachers I have. I am beyond fortunate that I have no genetic problems that limit my training. But I still don’t know why I keep going back. There is no sign of a future for me in the art, in Aikido or Goju Ryu. I have to work twice as hard to keep up with the others. I still fear pain and correction. I can barely handle criticism. I am weak, I am slow, and I am fearful.

If I knew why I keep stepping onto the wood and mat, if I knew why I still jump to be uke and to help others, to teach when I have no right, to train when I am so ill-fitted for it, I might be able to find some peace. Gods, I don’t know why. Maybe I am really some spectacular kind of masochist. Maybe this is the mentality that either creates utopias or destroys them. I don’t know whether my stubbornness is endearing or disgusting to others. I have only got as far as I have on pure will. I doubt I will be able to get any further without any talent. The corrections are endless. I was even told after a grading that my technique is sloppy, but I have spirit.

Maybe that is all I have. It might not be enough, but it has to count for something. It has to be the only thing that makes sure I don’t throw my gi away in a fit of self-obsessive pain and failure. If that is all I have, and perhaps all it takes to keep training and working when there are a thousand reasons not to, maybe there is a tiny, tiny whisper of hope.

I may never be a great sensei. I may never see purple belt or 4th kyu. I may forever remain a senior and not a sempai. I may never hear any praise from any instructor on my technique, but as long as I can train, and do so because I want to, and not because I am capable, then there is little more I can ask for. One either has talent, or not. Just as one cannot learn to be a great writer without any inherent talent, one can never be a great sensei without any natural ability. And that’s fine, and that is how the universe works. It is how it weeds out the pretenders, and makes sure that only teaching of worth is passed down.

And, I am okay with that. I can live with the bruises, because they are mine, and they are proof that I get up and swing another punch, land another strike. Take another fall, another ripping of joints and slam of knees into mat. The pain becomes proof that I am alive, that I am brave and that I am made of more than just protein and carbon. I may be scrawny and weak and stupid, but I have self-discipline and I have will. And, perhaps, when I put my head down at night, that’s something worth living with, and being proud of.