Training Apr 2006
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.