Physical Training Apr 2006
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You Can't Learn Martial Arts From a Book

copyright © 2006 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

Every two years or so I get the urge to take on this martial arts myth. In the meantime I never see or hear any advice on the topic of learning from books and videos except "You can't!"

We've all heard about the fellow who shows up for the karate tournament and does a kata in a strange zig-zag pattern that turns out to be the layout of a bunch of photos in a book. Photos in a pattern, kata in the same pattern. Oh the horror of such embarassment. Don't you be like that, everyone will know that you learned out of a book! Well, OK. So it's a laugh, but how was the kata otherwise? If the pathway is straightened out (a matter of perhaps 10 minutes practice) would the kata be passable? I haven't a clue of course, but it seems to me the point of the story is that it's bad to learn out of a book, not that it's impossible.

The dirty little secret

The dirty little secret around this martial arts myth is that more people than you might realize are learning from books and videos. And if they aren't exactly buying the latest instructional from Joe Ninjamaster's Fighting Academy, they are certainly referring to their own notes taken in seminars a few years ago.

I do it myself.. There, I said it. I've always done it. Whenever possible I've watched video and read books and tried to be a little bit ahead of my instruction so that when sensei shows me a new move I am already sort of familiar with it and we don't waste a lot of time trying to figure out which foot goes in front of which. That lets us get down to the fine tuning right away.

Many moons ago I was asked to go teach iaido to some folks on the East Coast. At that time there weren't many sources of instruction around, and very few books and videos, but I really didn't want to travel a thousand miles just to say "now put your right foot forward.... no your other right foot...". Warner and Draeger's book "Japanese Swordsmanship" was newly published, and the group could get hold of it so I told them to practice what Mitsuzuka sensei was doing in the photos at the end of the book, as best as they could. When I arrived to teach I didn't have to start from zero, they were already familiar with the "dance moves" and we got right down to the fine tuning. Did they have some "bad habits"? Not really, they looked like any other beginner would look with that same amount of time in.

Flash forward several years and to a pair of folks who wanted to learn jodo. They had been practicing for several years together from books and videos and wanted to get some live instruction so they showed up at class one day and impressed my socks off. There was very little that I had to change in what they were doing, some fine tuning, a bit of tweaking here and there and they had it, about the same skill level as any of my own students who had been working for the same time.

Everyone I've discussed so far were long-time students of the Japanese martial arts of course, and could call on all the core body-knowledge that training provides, but as far as I'm concerned "Myth Busted". You can learn from books and videos, I've done it, and I've seen it done. I have since written many books and produced many videos for situations just like this, where students can't get to regular practice but want to learn what they can. They still sell well and nobody has ever come back to me with a complaint that it ruined their chances of learning properly.

To deny that we can learn from books and video is to deny one of the most powerful human abilities that we possess, the "remote memory" that is written language. (and now, with video, a visual language). What took us above the predators of this world was language, and more specifically our ability to abstract experience into instruction so that we could pass on our memories from one person to another like some sort of strange alien virus in a Star Trek episode. Just by making sounds we can pass on our personal experience to someone else so that they don't have to "learn the hard way" that fire is hot. We say "ugga bugga" which means "don't touch that stupid, it hurts if you do, wave it at the tiger instead" and miraculously the other person doesn't grab the flaming part of the stick.

But we've gone further than that, with an extra abstraction step we can actually skip the face to face noise-making and communicate remotely in either space or time. I can make marks on paper or this computer screen that you can then look at and "hear" in your brain as if I'm talking to you. You can then "feel" and "remember" my experiences when I say to you "don't grab the pointy end of that metal bar, it hurts". Your grand-kids could even have the same experience implanted in them 40 years from now if they read this.

Take that you alien virus that needs physical contact to implant those memories, we can do it remotely.

And with photography and video? Well we've only had photography for 150 years, and video for about 50 so we really haven't seen the effect these "remote memory methods" will have on us, but I would ask you to simply think about flight simulation trainers for a moment.

Is personal instruction all it's cracked up to be?

I can tell you now that in the All Japan Kendo Federation Iaido section there is a lot of emphasis being placed world-wide by top instructors from the ZNKR on "the book". Students at seminars in Europe and North America have been told for the last year or so to "read the book" and follow what's written there. Why would that be if  you can't learn from a book? With a moment's reflection one realizes that if we want to have a "standardized set of iaido" by which to coordinate instructional levels internationally, you ought to have some method of making sure everyone is "on the same page". It is impossible in a multi-national organization to have one single leader teach every person in the organization personally. There has to be a book. There has to be a video.

What about that video? There you have a fellow who gets to do the kata over and over until one "good representative" example is filmed. Compare looking at that example to watching your sensei do the kata... sometimes he's tired, sometimes he's injured, sometimes he's sloppy and sometimes he's thinking about how he's going to pay the rent next month.

It's not a question of whether or not we can learn from the book or video, we're being told to learn from the book and video for the simple reason that individual instrutors end up teaching individual arts. To standardize, everyone needs to refer back to the standard and that's why rules, laws and kata are written down. That's the standard. Writing was once considered magical precisely because it didn't change with every telling. It was god-like in it's stability, it said the same thing 10 years from when it was written as the day it was put down.

Whereas this telephone tag of oral culture that we'd had up to then was something that shifted with the mood of the teller or the listener, and eventually every story becomes something else entirely. I might even go so far as to suggest that a person who claims one must only learn directly from teacher to student is making a virtue of mistakes or deliberate changes to the original art. We now have video that goes back a couple of generations in many arts and it is clear that these arts drift, even with the best of intentions not to allow this, so why would those who want to preserve the past insist that we do it using the most unreliable method possible? Why not use books and videos to preserve the art?

I suspect anyone who would say you can't learn martial arts from a book would also argue that you can't learn the arts without an instructor. Now if we can only learn directly from the instructor, than it follows that we can't learn when the instructor isn't present. The problem with this of course is that it leads inevitably to the degeneration of the art, not the improvement. Even if we assume that we get all the instruction our teacher has to give before he dies, (most instructors die before their students) and assuming he got it all from his instructor... inevitably somewhere along the line something's going to be lost.

Of course if we lose our instructor before we get all he knows, we're lost ourselves, no more learning, no more improvement, all we can do is pass our own diminished art on to our students. Does it happen this way? Of course not. Each generation of instructor takes what they learned and hopefully improves on it. But wait? Improves how? Well I suppose they "make it up" or "intuit a new technique". So... it's OK to make it up but not to learn it from a book? Trust me, if sensei's got a book, he's reading it.

Just what does an instructor do anyway?

Why is it that we need an instructor? Is there some sort of divine spark that we get from a direct physical touch (like that cute little alien virus perhaps)? Is there some sort of absorption process that only happens in that physical presence and not through a book or video? Perhaps you'll grant me that a small amount of standardized training can be had from books, but wish to remind me that personal instruction means customized training programs. That one needs specific feedback to learn.

Having seen 20 years worth of beginners, I can say with some confidence that pretty much everyone goes through the same process as they learn a martial art. In fact I can pretty much predict when the students will ask certain questions, when they will suddenly "get" this or that movement. We're not so different as we may think so customized training schedules aren't really necessary and would only speed up the process if they were used. Which they are not. I know of no martial art that is taught on the basis of individualized training programs for each student. Such things are done of course in any elite sports program where each international level athlete might have a team of coaches and support staff, but the martial arts are traditional. Everyone is expected to fit into the program, and if the art is really traditional, the students learn by "watch and do". Sensei does not coach, nor does he praise, criticise or otherwise offer advice. He simply does the kata and the students copy that as best as they can. Exchange the physical sensei for a video tape and where is the difference?

On the other hand

I'm definitely not suggesting that one should try to learn a martial art without an instructor, simply that one can learn from books and videos. Feedback happens, it's immensely valuable and important to get those verbal clues from sensei on whether or not you're doing it right. It would take a dedicated, talented and careful person indeed to learn iaido entirely from a book. It would take really good instructional materials and a video tape machine to watch oneself... and most of all, it would take a person who would never ever be satisfied that they'd "got it".

Customization of training programs does in fact happen in the martial arts, despite what we may claim. Instructors do give suggestions and hints about what to work on at which time in the training process. These come as quick comments such as "cut stronger" or "relax the shoulders" and trigger whole cascades of discovery in the attentive student.

Instructors are role models, they are at class every day and thus give students a hint about the most important training method of all. Butt on floor. Nothing else can compare with being at class, all class, every class. Sensei is, why not us?

Depending on what you want to get out of martial arts, and how good a person your sensei is, you might even learn other things from his modeling. Like being a good person.

What can I get out of book and video instruction?

You tend to get out of martial arts training what you want to get out of it. If you expect to learn how to be a kick-ass butt-whupper, you'll learn that. If you want to become a zen master, you might even learn that. Certainly you'll tend to find an instructor that will emphasize and teach what you want to learn, so quite a lot of the learning will be self-selection. Very few boxing and wrestling coaches are trying to create monks, (although boxers and wrestlers may actually become gentler people). Very few tai chi instructors are trying to teach their students to take their enemies heads off with a single blow, (although some tai chi students may learn such a thing). Those who want to fight might choose boxing, those who want to become balanced and peaceful might choose tai chi.

In any and all of these arts, no matter what you want to get out of it, there will be a physical component of the art. I can't think of a purely mental martial art except perhaps the study of logic (formal, informal and symbolic). If there's "dance steps" there's books and videos out there that can help learn them. If you can't learn from them, perhaps it's the fault of poor instructional materials. Martial artists are not often known as great educators, but there's no reason someone could not write a set of books that were graduated like math texts, starting from what you need to know from the beginning and moving on to ever more subtle instruction.

Considering most students never go beyond the "dancing" level of practice anyway, why should we worry if part of their learning comes from books and video? It's precisely the stuff that's most easy to learn from that sort of material.

The Implications

If I'm defending book learning, I should probably consider the consequences of such a thing. This really comes down to "would I hand out some sort of certification to a person who had done all their learning from a book"? If the testing is physical, and they can perform the art, yes of course I would. Why would I not?

But let's assume the martial arts are about more than just the techniques, let's even say that a martial artist must achieve enlightenment of some sort to be worthy of certification. What now? To consider that, let's consider the practice of Zen since that's so often argued about in the same breath as the martial arts and is said to involve some sort of enlightenment (as well as some sort of certification for said enlightenment). Can a person with no regular practice with a master become enlightened? Perhaps from reading the sutras? Such a spontaneous and complete enlightenment is said to be possible, and so certfication must be considered.

To refuse certification for someone who can demonstrate the requirements for such certification, no matter how those requirements were acquired, is to reduce all certification to the level of a gold star for attendance.

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Physical Training Apr 2006