Friday, December 20, 2013

Who do you face in the Dojo?

The Forge
I recently had a conversation with one of my senior students. It reminded me that we are all walking the same path, the only difference is our location on the path. We were discussing what happens when our training is neglected. How difficult it can become to return the dojo because we perceive there will be judgement or we don't measure up to a certain standard.

When I suggested to the student that all that needs to be done is showing up at the dojo and training, I was subjected to the reasons why this was difficult. Let me know if this sounds familiar: "I'm out of shape." "I have other commitments." "What will the other students say, I'm a senior and wont last the class." "I'm embarrassed." 

There were a few others, but I'm sure you get the idea. When I suggested the student just show up and train, the defiance arose within the student. I was subsequently told, "I cant believe I'm being defiant with you."
I had to laugh (and I did) because this student thought the defiance was being directed at me when in reality it was being directed inward. I told the student that my position as a teacher is to stand in and for the potential contained in each person. The same way it was done for me when I began. My teachers did not see the awkward student who couldn't perform techniques correctly, but rather the student I would become if I dedicated myself to the training and practice.

My own version of the above went this way:
I had reached shodan( first degree black) and I told my then sensei, who is still my present day sensei, I think I need to take a break. I had trained hard for four years and felt I deserved a break after getting to black belt. His response still resonates with me today. He said "At shodan, you are just starting. This isn't the time to take a break, this is the time to train harder than you have before." I didn't want to hear that. Not only did I not want to hear that, I couldnt hear it at the time.
What I wanted to hear was " You're right, you have trained incredibly hard these past four years, why don't you take some time off and relax?"

I walked away from that conversation, frustrated and angry. Determined to do what I wanted to do. I took off two years from training. For two years I didnt train. I didnt visit a dojo, practice kata or engage in any activity that could be considered martial. Two years later I started visiting my sensei, who when he first saw me made me feel like two days had passed not two years. His first question was, "When are you coming to train?" 

My responses were very similar to what the student told me. I needed to get in shape, I'm a senior and what will the juniors think of me, I don't wan to embarrass you (this one is by far the most destructive-Ill get to it later), My techniques are rusty, I don't even remember half of them. And so on went my reasons. He listened patiently and waited for me to finish. "Just come to class." was his response. And I did and haven't stopped since-over 22 years later.

Where do these responses come from? Why do we say these things went confronted with a situation like this? The easy answer is fear. We make commitments and excuses to cover our fear. I made sure I was so busy during those two years that any time I had would be occupied doing something else. Its a ploy to mask fear. The other answer is ego or saving face.

We remember where we were and are loathe to return to a state where we may not look as good, to be a beginner again. That is ego driven thinking. The comment about not wanting to embarrass my sensei is destructive because not only does it play to my ego, but it implies that his ego is as inflated as mine.

You have heard me say many times in the past that the dojo is a forge. It burns off impurities and you leave the dross of your character, techniques and spirit on the dojo floor. However a forge is only useful if you enter it. You must place the metal INSIDE the forge. The same way you have to ENTER the dojo.

The dojo is also a mirror, because the only person you face when you are on that floor is yourself. Its the you from last class, the you from last month, last year. You are always facing yourself on the dojo floor. There is always something to be polished, some technique that can be performed better. That is the ongoing state of the dojo and the student-regardless of rank.
The next time you step on the floor, it doesn't matter where you are, remember that the greatest challenge lies within.

Face Yourself

One final note:
Thank you for following this blog. 

I'm currently working on several book projects and so will take the holidays to restructure my new year schedule, train, and spend time with the family.

This will be my last post of the year. 

Thank you all for the follows and the comments. 

I wish you all a Happy Holiday Season and a Wonderful New Year!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The power of community

 This past weekend we had a promotion. One of the many things I realized about our school is our sense of community. Every rank that advanced demonstrated a strong spirit, perseverance, determination and courage. We had some moments of levity especially with the children, because children will give some of the most creative answers. The promotion took place over two days. Initially we did them all in one day  and ended up with very tired children and wilted parents. Going through the requirements for several ranks in one day makes for one long day a very tired students. We decided to separate the ranks and test them individually. Also the children and adults test on two different days. It makes for two very long days for the seniors but they support the test because of their commitment to the school and the students. 

The pictures you see in this post were taken by two seniors I would like to acknowledge ( Senpai Elena and Senpai Joshua). Thank you for your great photos! (Scroll to bottom to see pictures)
This is only a few out of 400 pictures that were taken over two days. I tried to show the overall spirit of unity we have in the pictures. Picking the ones to showcase was difficult because every picture showed something amazing. Some of the things the pictures do not show are the fortitude the students demonstrated when the test became difficult. One of our seniors-Senpai Mark make a comment which stayed with me. "Each rank is raising the bar- this is amazing!"   
 It was true, each rank kept amazing us. With their command of technique and precision. It was inspiring to see the progression skill. We started the morning with white belts and worked our way through the day until evening with the advanced yellow belts. In each group we could see the techniques get sharper. One of the things that came through the most was the intent behind the techniques. In the white belts we could see the idea start taking hold.

 By the time we were looking at advanced yellow belts there was no doubt in our minds that they had internalized the concept of intent behind the technique. 

 I want to express a heartfelt thanks to the Seniors who helped make this promotion the extraordinary event it was. Senpai Mark who made sure the intensity was ever present. Senpai Elena who made sure the precision was not forgotten.
Senpai Orlando who gave the students a sense of security and comfort.
Senpai Joshua who gave the students a map to follow during their kata making sure no one got lost.

 I also want to thank all of the parents who stand together with us in their children's lives as partners for their martial path.  
Thank you for taking the time out of your incredibly hectic schedules to make time to bring your child to class. I know that there may times its not easy, or convenient and yet you manage to make it. That is our community in action.

 The inception of most the groups started with tears. Even before they were on the floor, there was nervousness about knowing material and fear of the unknown. I had several conversations with members of each group and the recurring theme was the fear of the unknown. After a few moments and they had calmed down they would enter the dojo and they each excelled. 

To highlight the feeling of community one little boy said something very moving. He told me he didn't want to take promotion because he didn't want to ruin it for his group and give them extra push-ups. I assured him that there was no way his group would avoid push-ups. More importantly I stressed to him that the only thing that was expected from him or anyone testing that day was that they did their best. He put on his uniform and entered the dojo after that.

 That is what I always expect from the students. We set the bar high, they met and surpassed the bar. Each group moving it higher for the next.

 The other facet of promotion that they only experience on the day of is the breaking aspect-tameshiwari. We only do it during the promotion. For many of the parents it may seem like this is an easy task, break a quarter inch piece of wood with your hand or foot. For the students testing it may as well be a cinder block. Its not easy and they demonstrate an incredible amount of mental fortitude that leaves us speechless. 

There is a deep sense of accomplishment when they do manage to break that is palpable right after the break and they get their pieces of wood. The ones that don't manage to break their wood get to take it home. I always enjoy hearing the stories at the next class of how they went home and broke their boards. Most of the time they come back to the dojo holding their pieces of wood as evidence.

 Board breaking in itself is not indicative of great physical prowess. Although its not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. What it does is show them how much power they have in a visceral way. It shows them that they are getting stronger, not only physically but more importantly mentally. If you have any doubt as to the difficulty get yourself a few one inch pine boards and punch through them. It requires a certain kind of mindset to accomplish. 

The last group (advanced yellow) had one added dimension to their promotion. They had to spar. If the promotion is stressful fro the other ranks imagine that stress being ramped up ten times as much with the introduction of kumite or sparring. To say they did well would not do them justice. They fought exceptionally well. One young man had recently suffered a broken arm. We were taking precautions so he not re-injure the arm and in one exchange he fell on the arm that was recuperating. The fact that he came back in to finish even in the midst of fear and pain that he may hurt himself again is a testament to his strength of character. They fought  until they thought  they couldn't  stand  any longer and then they fought some more. When I tied their belts around their waists each one was beaming with a sense of having achieved something larger than themselves.

 The next day we had the adults and Senpai Mark prefaced the promotion by letting them know that the bar had been set by the children the previous day. It was a grueling and intensely physical promotion. They were tested beyond what they thought was possible. They withstood heat and exhaustion. The mental and physical fatigue was a constant throughout their test. Those that fought had to dig deep to find another reserve of strength after a four hours of testing. They found their reserves and surpassed any and all expectations.  You were all incredible.
I am humbled and honored to know you and to walk with you on this martial path.
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Adults One dojo family
Adults new ranks (foggy lens!)

Blue/Adv Blue getting ready
Blue/Adv Blue push-ups

Adv Blue Kata

Blue belt seiza

Blue belt seiza

8am before we begin

White belt kata

White belt Tameshiwari

New Blue Belts!

New Adv Blue/ Yellow belts!!

Yellow belts ready

Yellow belt kata

Yellow belt tameshiwari

Yellow belt Tameshiwari

Yellow belt tameshiwari

New Adv Yellow belts!!

Adv Yellow kata

Adv Yellow Tameshiwari

New Green Belts!!

Adults ready!( Notice the smiles)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Respect our Superiors

In our dojo kun, our dojo creed there is a line that states that we should respect our superiors. It has been brought to my attention this week by several of the students that if we are studying an ego-less way who are our superiors?
Its a very good question. The term respect our superiors can be viewed several ways. You can see it from a point of view of those who may be superior to you in skill or rank. It can also be viewed from the point of view of those who are superior in knowledge or social strata.

I pointed out that it can also be viewed as those who are elder to us. This is where it gets interesting. If we see it from this point of view it changes our entire practice.
If we take the attitude of respect to those who are senior to us, and by senior, I mean older than us. We can easily walk a path of humility. It  is a given that we should respect
all those who we come in contact with, in and out of the dojo. However those who are elder deserve a special respect. Let me share with you why.

Those generations that have come before us have paved the way for us. In many cases they have suffered hardships and difficulties so that we can have a better life. This is not just relevant to martial arts, but to society as a whole.  When we show this generation respect we are acknowledging their contribution to our lives. We are each born into the link of a chain that reaches back through the generations, both in our biological  families and in the adopted families of our practice.

Sadly we live in a society and culture ( in this country) where growing old is not valued, but rather is something to be avoided.  You only need to look  at  the cosmetic industry and you can see what an "evil" getting wrinkles, and by default aging is. In other cultures the elderly are venerated and are celebrated. In our society the elderly are discarded, put in homes where someone else can take care of them. The unspoken message is that they have outgrown their usefulness, in our lives and in society. In a martial practice respect is a very important component. You respect yourself, your fellow students, and your teachers.
You are also taught to respect your lineage. As a martial practitioner you are expected to know where your style comes from and who made it possible. Each one of us that studies a martial art is the embodiment of the will of our elders. We are all connected, we are all one. The great lesson that we learn both in martial arts and life is that youth and skill are temporary, but spirit and will can transcend your lifetime.

The pictures in this post are familiar to most martial artists. The top picture is Sensei Gichin Funakoshi which is considered one of the fathers of Karate and was the founder of Shotokan karate a style which is still practiced today.

The woman in the red belt is  Sensei Keiko Fukuda, at 96 she was a 9th degree black belt in judo, had been studying for 74 years and still taught three times a week. She passed away at 98 and is reported to have said at 96 that she needed to "slow down a bit" in her training. She was also the last living student who trained directly with Judo founder Jigoro Kano and the highest ranking woman in Judo.

The last picture is of  O-sensei Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido. Known for its soft and circular movements, it is a highly effective art that is still practiced today  all over the world.

I highlight these three teachers ( and there are many more) because they all practiced way past what would be considered their prime years. The trained and taught even when their bodies no longer held the vigor of youth. They were valued and respected as people and as teachers.

Lets take this attitude into our own lives and respect those who have come before us. It is interesting to note that when students ask me what the stripes on my belt mean, I tell them " it only means I have been doing this a little longer than you have." The word sensei literally means born before.  Using that definition we each have many sensei in our lives. Let us show them the respect they deserve.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What are you willing to defend?

My wife recently shared a video with me. What occurs in the video disturbed me.

She suggested that I post my thoughts on it and here I am. The video isn't very long and I suggest you watch it for a clearer frame of reference. You can find it here:

In this video we see a young boy (8 years old) retrieve his mothers wallet from a thief who is making away with her bag. What the little boy did was quite admirable especially at his age. However I feel it was wrong. There were so many things that could have gone wrong, that thankfully did not. The thief could have struck the boy. The boy was also in danger of being run over as he chases the truck. The worst case scenario would have been if the the thief abducted the child. A very possible outcome.

There are deeper lessons here as well. What are we teaching our children when we see a boy risk his life to get his moms bag back? Are we sending an unspoken message that things are very important-more important than our well-being?

I have a saying that I say to my wife constantly. She says its my mantra, and she is right. The saying is: "Don't leave anything in the car that you aren't willing to lose." What does this mean? It means you don't leave items that you value or that have intrinsic value sitting in the car. I learned this the hard way after leaving my wallet in the car once and remembering I did so ten minutes later, only to discover a broken window and no wallet.

The incident in the video would never have occurred if the mother had taken the bag with her AND locked her doors. I'll take it a step further, beyond things. I never leave my children alone in the car-EVER. Doesn't matter if its gas or a bagel in the morning. Weather is not a factor either. If its too inconvenient to take the kids, its too inconvenient and will have to wait until I'm alone.

This mother was very fortunate her son wasn't hurt or worse. She had the right response if you see her reaction to the incident. She needs to go further and take the steps necessary to prevent things like this from happening in the first place. By leaving the bag in the car she was the catalyst for the event, since it was a crime of opportunity. I can't help but feel that as a new yorker it amazed me that she left her bag in the car to begin with. This is an action that does not occur in big cities, we just don't do that.

So its possible her behavior is influenced by environment, but ultimately it goes back to awareness or the lack thereof. (See my post on awareness here: for more on that subject)

 What does this mean for us? Well I have a conversation with my kids periodically, it goes something like this:

Me: " Why don't we cross the street at the wrong time? "(This is a reference for any behavior that could be dangerous to their well being, but crossing the street is familiar to them)

Them: "Because we can get hurt by a car!" ( Very proud of their answer as they both chime in)

Me: "Exactly and in the whole universe how many of you are there?" (They are silent for a few moments)

Them: "Only one."

Me: That means that you are special, unique and important to Mom and Dad.

They both nod in agreement clearly pleased at having the right answers and realizing that  in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE there is only one of them and that their safety is important to me and their mom. Its a lesson that needs to be repeated often.

This not only goes for the children it goes for you as well. The question in the heading  "What are you willing to defend?" comes from our self defense course and is always asked by our instructor Senpai Elena. The second part to that question is : "How are you willing to defend it?"

 We have had people who may shy away from defending themselves for a multitude of reasons. Once they are asked-What if your children are in danger? It shifts immediately to ferociousness and devastation. Why not be aware and defend themselves all the time so that they can be around for those they hold most dear? When presented that way, you can almost see the light-bulb go on.

If you learn to be aware, take the appropriate steps, and acquire the skills-you can diminish the danger to yourself and your loved ones. Don't let it take a close call or worse to begin this. Start today.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Practical Application

One of the great facets of training is that it forces you to think. Let me clarify. You may be studying an art that is ancient, but you still have to make it work for you. It has to work for your body type, your height your reach and other physical compositions. One of the places this is expressed is in kata. Kata is not dance, its not an imaginary fight against a series of would be attackers. What kata is, is a mnemonic device recording movements to use in close quarter combat. One of the best ways to understand this is through the use of bunkai.

First what is bunkai?  Bunkai is the deconstruction and practical application of techniques found in kata. In other words it means you analyze and apply the technique you are using in your kata. Many schools do not engage in this or feel kata are outdated and unnecessary. It is a shame many feel this way, since the study of bunkai adds a dimension to training that is not replicated by anything else. Through bunkai you can get to the heart of the style you are studying. Bunkai will take you through the history of your art into the minds of those who created the techniques.  Bunkai forces you to think. This bears repeating. In order to learn and apply bunkai you must think. What is this technique doing? Which way does this technique achieve the intended goal of stopping an altercation? It makes you look at kata as a device for the practical application of every technique.

So let me shock you a bit here. There are no blocks, or kicks or punches or anything else we have given names to. There are simply the movements a body can execute.  For example you will hear this often in our self defense class " All arms bend the same way, bodies are built the same way."  This is a simplification of course, but what it means is that we are all bio-mechanically the same. So in kata when I execute an upper block as we call it, if I take that same movement and smash it into an opponents throat as I grab the back of their head, it ceases to be an upper block and becomes a fatal blow. Same exact technique.

This freedom of expression in your art is what you must endeavor to discover. Is a lower parry actually parrying a lower kick or is it a hammer fist into the knee or thigh? Is it a sweep? Or all of the above?

The other mindset that seems to be circulating is that bunkai must hold the okuden or secret techniques of a style. Therefore it can only be shown to the most senior students. This must be conducted in a veil of secrecy and those students must never reveal the bunkai to their juniors. This sounds so outlandish I have a hard time believing it, but I have experienced it firsthand. Suffice to say I disagree with this point of view. Bunkai should be shared early and often, it gets students to think. When you stop a kata and ask "What technique are you doing there? " Most students will just give you the name of the technique they have always done. If you go a little deeper and ask " Well show me how that would work."  At what range and from what angle?  What is your off hand doing? Is it really an offhand or is it holding something?
Why are you standing that way, is that the way you would really stand? What if you modified that a bit would it still work?

When you start asking these questions and more importantly when the students start asking these questions, it deepens the practice of the art and makes the kata come alive. These are the questions we need to be asking. These are the exercises we need to teach our students.  We need to spur them to dig deeper and make their practice profound.

If you wish to go further into the study of bunkai, or its not offered where you train I suggest you visit Iain Abernathy's site.  You can find it here:
this is a good place to start. Iain is well known for his practical application of basic moves. His site is full of useful information and is a great resource for learning. He is also accessible and a friendly individual, willing to share of his time and expertise if you reach out to him.

A little quiz:  The photo in this blog is one of the bunkai of the last move of which Pinan / Heian kata?  Let me know what your answer is.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando Sanchez

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Importance of Awareness

An article was recently brought to my attention:

In the article it describes:
Recently released footage from a Muni security camera allegedly shows that on Sept. 23, Nikhom Thephakayson pulled out a .45-caliber pistol, raised it, pointed it across the aisle, put it down and continued to pull it out multiple times, even wiping his nose with the handgun. Absorbed in their phones, not one of the dozens of passengers reacted until he fired a bullet into the back of Justin Valdez, 20, a sophomore at San Francisco State University.

Before you make any snap judgments about the people on the train lets examine ourselves for a moment.

How often do you check your phone while walking in the street, on the check out line or just waiting? 

When sitting/standing in the train or any other mass transit vehicle are you aware of the people around you or are you immersed in your phone ( or any other technological gadget) oblivious to who gets on or off? 

Do you text while you drive?

How often do you wear headphones (ear-buds) while outside, effectively cutting off your sense of hearing, which is in essence an early warning system?

After reading this article I took an informal survey as I rode the train in New York City. On one random subway car alone more than half the people in the car were immersed in some sort of device completely oblivious to those around them. Another large group were dozing or had their eyes closed.

As I walked down Broadway, I counted on one block ten people with ear-buds or headphones who would not have heard me if they were in danger and I needed to call out for their safety ( I tested this by just saying "Excuse me." while behind or beside them. Only two people registered that they heard me.) The others couldn't hear me because the music was audible from where I stood, about 3-4 feet away. Three people had to stop short at intersections before crossing the street because they were crossing against the flow of traffic and didn't notice, they were all texting or reading their phones.

As I proceeded  on Broadway I attempted to get close enough to invade personal space, from the side, rear and front. I used ploys like asking for time and directions or just acted creepy and tried to get  real close. Yes it was a busy afternoon, but I really wanted to see what the level of awareness was. These exercises didn't take more than an hour. Out of the twenty people I approached in a five block radius (I was on Broadway and 79th street), sixteen of them allowed me into their personal space. After I closed the distance I informed them that they each could have been a victim, some laughed it off and most dismissed it, it was the middle of the day after all and  no one gets attacked in broad daylight, right?

Its this awareness that we stress so much in self defense classes. Awareness or situational awareness as it is sometimes called is the act of not walking around in a fog.  You will often hear when people are attacked or when incidents occur that it just happened " out of the blue" or "I never saw it coming". In the case of blindside, ambush attacks or spontaneous acts, this may be possible, the other times however you just weren't aware.

If you drive you need to be even more aware. I wont go into the amount of people I have seen driving and looking down at phones or just not focusing on whats in front of them. Considering that even a small vehicle can weigh a few tons its in our best interest to focus and be aware while driving what is essentially a large battering ram capable of wreaking devastating damage.

This lack of awareness is becoming more and more prevalent. Not only because of technology. I think the technology just facilitates it, but rather we need to shift our attitude of " I'm not going to get involved, or " It has nothing to do with me". When we choose to be this way we are passively saying-I don't care.

I invite you to try some of the exercises I did. See how close you can get to other people in normal settings
 ( please don't get yourself arrested) without them noticing. Understand that those who would victimize others are doing the exact same thing.

Make the choice to be aware, look around on the bus, train and the street you walk down. Unplug the headphones / ear-buds and engage all of your senses. Cultivate a  radar of who and what is around you, this does not mean you walk around paranoid all of the time, but aware. One of the first things we teach in our self defense classes is awareness and its importance. It doesn't matter how skilled or trained you are if you are walking around in a fog, oblivious to your surroundings.

Keep your eyes and ears open.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Friday, October 11, 2013

Instructor Interview-Sempai Orlando

This week I will post our first instructor interview. Each month I will interview one of our instructors so that you can have a glimpse into some of the inner workings of our school and the people that teach and train there.

This weeks interview will be Sempai Orlando. In addition to being an instructor in our school, he is also the off site director for our after school programs which is currently taking place in two New York City public schools. On average between the two schools he is teaching karate to 30 children every week.

EH: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, I know you have a busy schedule between teaching and being a full time college student and trying to have a social life.

SO: Thank you for letting me be part of the blog. I read it often and really like it. Most of the times its a continuation of the conversations I have with the sensei.

EH: OK so lets begin. Lets start with your age. How old are you ?

SO: I'm 18 years old.

EH: What are your goals in college?

SO: Well this is my first year so its been a big change for me. My goals are to be a physical therapist ( I enjoy working with people) and also to learn stage and film combat. I have choreographed a few fight scenes and did one for a short film my older brother filmed.

EH: Do you have any specific challenges training at your age?

SO: I think the biggest challenge right now is balancing my school work and my training and teaching. I usually have to wake up very early to do my own personal training, then I have to get ready for school. I have a heavier load of school work now so it means I have to be very conscious of how I manage my time.

EH:  How early do you start your day and what does your training consist of ?

SO: On the days I can train in the morning I'm up at 4 am. My training consists of a lot of conditioning ( I punch and kick trees to toughen certain areas), I also work a kettle-bell routine and then I finish with body weight training-what we do in our classes: push ups, sit ups, squats.

EH: How long have you been training?

SO: I have been training for 13 years. My first dojo was our garage, when I was real young. The class size was pretty small since it was just me, after a while my younger brother joined us.

EH: Why did you start training?

SO: I started training because I saw my dad always training and I wanted to be just like my dad.

EH: Was your dad your first instructor?

SO: Yes, I started when I was five so he was my first teacher. I have also trained with Sensei Orhan from a Kyokushin school in Queens. I'm still beginning so I haven't had that many teachers.

EH: Why do you continue to train?

SO: I continue to train because it has become my passion.

EH: Have you ever wanted to stop training?

SO: When I was younger I wanted to. I felt that it was too hard and that I wasn't very good at it.

EH: Why did you continue?

SO: Honestly? My dad. He just kept telling me I would get better. That it would take time and that if I didn't give up he wouldn't give up. Also if I gave up, he still wouldn't give up. After a while I did get better and I started to like it.

EH: What part of training do you enjoy the most ?

SO: I enjoy the energy I feel in a class filled with people that are willing to push themselves past their limits. It pushes me to try harder and to push myself as well. It reminds me of one of the characters (kanji) we have on our main wall, ren ma-it means keep polishing. Training like that is part of the polishing. I also enjoy kata, except when I have to do it in front of the sensei, it always feels like I just learned it when I do it with him.

EH: What part of training do you least enjoy?

SO: The pain my body feels when I do certain exercises, even though I'm used to them. Getting hit when I fight the sensei. I definitely enjoy that the least.

EH: Why did you take on teaching?

SO: I teach so I can share my knowledge and experience with others. Also I love working with other people.

EH: You have competed in several tournaments and done well. You have also expressed that you will no longer compete in tournaments can you tell us why?

SO: I think tournaments are good for what they are-contests with rules. For me my practice is about being a warrior.When we fight we punch to the head, we also grapple, kick to the thigh, use joint locks, submissions and do ground work. I was disqualified from one tournament because I tapped my opponent on the nose and he bled a bit. It wasn't right or wrong, those were the rules, but it was not the way I learned to fight so it was difficult for me to adapt.

I train differently than most people I know my age. I don't think tournaments are bad, but they aren't for me and they don't reflect what I have been taught. I usually see a lot of pride and egos at tournaments, which to me is the opposite of what training should be. Also I have seen some kata tournaments and it doesn't look like kata at all, its more like dance moves and back flips choreographed to music with kiais that last about two minutes. I would never be a part of something like that.

EH: Any advice for someone just starting on their martial path?

SO: If you feel that a martial art is something you want to pursue, begin and don't stop. You're going to face a lot of challenges along the way but the payoff is worth it. Keep on training, ask questions learn as much as you can inside and outside the dojo. Sensei is always giving me a book to read, its usually related to martial arts but sometimes its not. Always try to better yourself, its never a competition with other people.

EH: Thank you again for giving me the time to interview you.

SO: You're welcome and thank you for letting me be part of the blog.

Sempai Orlando comes across as a very reserved (and older than his years) young man. In the dojo he is known for his affable manner and tough classes. I hope with this interview you have gotten some more insight into one of our instructors.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

For questions or suggestions on future topics contact:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Together on an individual path

There are no mirrors in our dojo.

There are several reasons for this:
For us its not practical, the wall space is being used by other items ( for example, weapons).
Its dangerous. We have, what one senior calls a " functional dojo". The weapons on the wall are all real and available when fighting occurs (provided you know how to and have been trained in using the weapon). With the exception of the ceremonial (yet very real and sharp) katana which are out of the way of the curious children's hands, every other weapon is at an accessible height.  In our school, when we fight, being kicked  into a wall or thrown into the wall as part of a self defense scenario is a very real possibility.The two craters we have caused (I was involved in both and they have since been patched)  in our wall attest to this. Getting thrown into a mirror usually ends up with a visit to the hospital E.R. and presents a hazardous situation to other students.

The main reason we don't have mirrors however is that it allows you to remain focused.
I have studied in dojos with mirrors and I am aware that the only ;person I need to be looking at in the mirror is myself. Usually that is how the class will start out. I will be focusing on myself and then one of my classmates will execute a technique that's higher than mine or faster and I will find myself inadvertently comparing my techniques to theirs. Its not a conscious act, this is all happening on a subtle level that requires constant vigilance. If left unchecked it becomes a full blown expression of ego in a place where ego is not welcome. This has the potential to occur in any dojo. What I have found and what has been my experience is that when there are no mirrors, it limits the distractions and allows for greater focus.

I always tell the students, when you are training don't look left or right focus on what you need to do. Don't compare yourself to others, especially in the dojo, because there is always going to be someone stronger, faster, more naturally gifted, or more proficient. If you look around you can always find an excuse not to try harder, not to give it your all. That is not the purpose of the dojo. When you enter on the floor the only person you need to be thinking about is that person you were the last time you stepped on the floor. Were you able to do ten push ups last time, well aim for fifteen this time or twenty. Maybe last time your body wasn't at 100% and today you feel much better, then you push yourself harder today.  The inverse may also be true and you may need to scale back the training today to take into account that your body may feeling sub par.
So here is the other side to that situation.  Since we are travelling together on this individual path, it is my obligation as someone who may be along further on the path to help out those who have just begun. This is the essence of the Sempai / Kohai relationship. Those who are seniors help those who are juniors. The juniors will look to the seniors to see how things are done. In a very real way the seniors are the mirrors for the juniors. This has been driven home recently by our two young green belts who have taken on assisting as part of becoming green belts. To reach green belt in our school means that on average you have been training for 3-4 years. They are not in the strict sense, beginners. Yet when these green belts were placed in front of white belts  to teach them basic techniques, I could see the nervousness and the excitement. It has added a dimension to their path that they were not aware of and now they are realizing that you do not truly learn until you have to teach another.

In our lives we would do well to adopt this attitude of focusing on ourselves and yet not forgetting those who come after us. I know it has served me well in my martial path as well as my writing ( where I am the novice). We have to stop worrying so much about what others are doing and pursue our lives, our passions and those things that bring us joy and excitement. The key is not stopping there, but encourage others, through your example, your words, and actions to do the same. When they need help offer it.  Sometimes its a gentle nudge, sometimes it needs to be gentle shove, but if you do it from a place of truly seeing others grow and have their lives transform for the better, then its worth it.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando

Next week: I will begin the instructor interview series and feature one of our instructors in the post. If you have any questions you would like to ask an instructor please email them to me at

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Warriorship of Women

Settle in and get comfortable, grab a cup of your favorite beverage, this is going to be lengthy post.

Last month I was involved in a conversation with some fellow martial artists ( men and women) about how women have been oppressed since the dawn of time on a global scale. That is not the topic of this post, nor have I been on this planet since the dawn of time so I cant offer a point from that perspective. However, one point that was brought up in the broad scope of the topic specifically focused on how women have not been allowed to be warriors. Could they be warriors now in our modern age?  We discussed it back and forth, but the thought stayed with me. Can women be warriors? Have there ever been female warriors or has this always been a male dominated subculture?

Before I even went into history to examine the veracity of the statements made by my colleagues, I drew on my own experience. I have been in several schools in my martial path. All of them had a mixed population, although the harder styles tended to lean towards male students. I wondered if this was because the style was hard or were the women being treated differently? I took some impromptu polls of female students and found that in some schools they are treated differently than the men. For example, some women have been cautioned against doing push-ups off their knees because they are perceived as not strong enough. Others were told that they couldn't strike certain surfaces because it was too hard for a woman.

In my personal experience I have stood in front of some formidable female warriors. In most cases I outweighed them by a good 50-100 pounds. Not one of them flinched at this size or weight disparity, in fact they relished it because it allowed them to really execute their techniques. One senior student used to stand about six inches away from me and still manage to kick me in the head full force. Another was such a technician with her hands and evasive maneuvers it was like fighting smoke, until you got hit. Were these women the exception? I don't believe so.

So lets see if there are any precedents.

Fu Hao was one of the many wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty and, unusually for that time served as a military general and high priestess.

Tomoe Gozen is thought to have been a late twelfth century female samurai, an onna bu geisha who may have pioneered the two sword style made famous in the 17th century by Miyamoto Mushashi.

The daughter of a Duke, Princess Pingyang raised and commanded her own army in the revolt against the Sui Dynasty. Later on her father would become Emperor Gaozu.

The Spartan princess Arachidamia is said to have fought Pyrrhus ( of the phrase pyrrhic victory) with a group of Spartan females under her command, and killed several soldiers before perishing.
The British Queen Boudicca led a revolt against the Roman Empire in 60 AD, but was decisively defeated.

Emilia Plater was a Polish noblewoman who fought as a Captain in the November 1830 uprising against Russia.

The Roman Empire was known to occasionally have women fighting called gladiatrix.

The Dahomey a people who live in Western Africa  established an all female militia, who served as  royal bodyguards to the king.

In Native American history, most of the Native American tribes contained a group of respected and well established women who were leaders of their militia. These leaders determined the fate of prisoners of war among other tribal decisions. Europeans and early American settlers refused to deal with the Native American women on such matters leading to their significance not being understood or appreciated until fairly recently. 

In Vietnam the sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led a rebellion against the Han rule in 40 B.C. According to tradition they were joined by many women warriors and succeeded in establishing a short lived independence.

In South Asia and the Indian subcontinent the concept of woman warrior exists both in the mythos and in history. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and was described as "remarkable in beauty, cleverness, and perseverance. She was also considered the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders.

In Indonesia, Martha Christina Tiahahu joined a guerrilla war against the Dutch Colonial government as a teenager in 1817.

Lyudmila Pavilchencko was a Soviet sniper during World War II, and is regarded as the most successful female sniper in history.

This list is by no means exhaustive, however the examples set the precedent for female warriorship. In India which is considered the birthplace of martial arts by many, there are still many female warriors, specifically training in Kalari Payattu.
The word Kalari means practice ground in Malayalam.  The traditional training ground of Kalari Payattu , a martial art of Kerala which is a state in south India, is always done inside the Kalari which literally translates to threshing floor or battlefield. Payattu means exercise in arms or practice.
Kalari playgrounds have, for centuries been used by both, men and women. Historically when men went off to fight battles, young women were often left behind to defend their villages and families. Women also trained in Kalari were able to resist invaders and bandits along the roads. Those who were from a higher caste also had access to a wide array of weapons at their disposal. Those from lower castes used ordinary utensils such as knives, anything and everything was considered a potential weapon. The lower castes also specialized in a more sophisticated from of empty handed combat. 
Kalari also had a place of some importance in the education system  in ancient Kerala. Today Kalari Payattu is a method of physical fitness divided into several schools- Thekkan and Vaddakan being two of the most known. It is a system that even today teaches young girls hand to hand combat.

So what has happened?  Why are women viewed as inferior warriors by modern society. especially in schools that teach martial arts?  It could be said that the media has played a role in this even though there are now more strong female protagonists. It could be that society is finally acknowledging women as warriors after a long time of denial. Whatever the case may be, there is a definitive shift in the perception of women as warriors taking place. I would argue that this is not a new trend but rather a return to a state that has always existed. 

So I presented a problem, let me suggest a solution. I wont say its the only solution, but it is a solution I can actively employ. In our school, we are what I like to call gender blind. Our instructors look past gender when training a student. What is taken into account is ability, mastery of technique, determination to learn, and character. These traits are not gender specific. In our school we believe in cultivating warriors, not tournament champions. That is not a slight against tournament based schools, I think tournaments have their own place in the martial world. It is just not the focus of our school. This means we do not make exceptions based on gender and we expect our students commitment to be based on a warriors mindset, male or female. If more martial arts schools adopted this stance I think we would cause more of a shift in the perception of women as warriors.

Its possible you may be thinking-well that's a good sentiment, but pound for pound a man is stronger than a woman. Being stronger, the man will win in any conflict. I disagree, but let me share an analogy that stresses the importance of technique.  My instructor, a Shihan- used to explain it this way.  The explanation was usually in response to my question of outweighing him by 100 pounds and he was still able to easily deal with my attacks. He would say " If I take a bullet and throw it at you, at most it will annoy you and be ineffective. If I take that same bullet, put it in a gun-the same small piece of metal has devastating consequences if shot at you, and connects." This is why we stress technique over strength. Its not that I feel strength is overrated, its good to be strong (we certainly do enough conditioning to support this fact), but if I had to choose between strength and technique I would choose technique-always. It has been my experience that technique overcomes strength when they meet.  This is why the females in our school are expected to be as  formidable as the males.

I was recently shown this in my weekly jujitsu class.  During class we working on a wrist lock and throw. The person I was paired with was a senior both in rank and in age ( she was easily ten years my senior). Whenever I am with a senior( in rank) I like to ask questions. In this case I presented the scenario that what if I just held my wrist in place could she still execute the lock and throw?  She said "Well why don't we try and see if I can?"  I proceeded to attack, she sidestepped, grabbed my wrist locked it and flung me easily. "I guess it does work" she said as she smiled at me while I lay on the floor. Just to make sure I understood the mechanics behind the exercise we worked on the same sequence for an hour. It was a literal, visceral (and jarring) lesson. When I did execute the sequence on her, it required no strength on my part but rather a shifting of the hips and unseating her balance. she reminded me that its not the strength that makes it effective-which is why so many people make mistakes, but rather proper technique. The technique is the foundation she kept telling me.

So what does this all mean? Well, if you are female and reading this post I encourage you to embrace the spirit of warriorship. If you are male and hold a different opinion than the one I shared here, that's fine. We are all entitled to our opinions, I would challenge you however to open your thoughts to the possibility that women are as capable as men in being warriors. 

I recently heard an interaction between my wife and one of my daughters. The context was that my daughter had hurt her knee. My wife went over and quickly addressed the situation acknowledging that bumping your knee hurt, but then she said something truly profound.  She looked at my daughter and said" We aren't going to let that stop us though, right? " My daughter nodded still in pain, but smiling.
"Do you know why not?" she asked my daughter.  Together in a rising crescendo they both answered.
" Because we are Warriors!" My daughter ran off to continue playing.

The warriorship of women has a long and rich tradition in history. It is up to us to make sure that in continues into the next generation and beyond.

I would like to hear from both my male and female readers. What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree? Lets continue the conversation.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Power of Sitting

Everyday I sit for fifteen minutes. Everyday. You may be saying, well that's not a very long time, and you would be right. Fifteen minutes of your day is actually a very small amount of time. Or you may be saying ,well I sit everyday for hours, whats fifteen minutes?

 Well let me clarify my definition of sitting. For fifteen minutes I intentionally sit in zazen (seated meditation) and still my mind. The running track we all have in our heads gets quieter. I connect to my breath on a deeper level and I just am. On some days (more often than not) those fifteen minutes feel like an hour. Bombarded by random thoughts that seem to be waiting for just this moment to assault me, I do my best not to hold on to any of them. Rather I am an observer as they come and go, always returning to the anchor, my breath. On some rare days (very rare days) the time seems to pass by in a compressed manner. Fifteen minutes seems like five and I marvel at the relativity of time in the context of perception.

So why should you sit? At the very least it gives you quiet time to yourself, to be with you. It highlights ( at least for me) the deeper level of connection we all share. When I sit I can "see" that I am part of a greater whole. Sitting also serves to focus your breathing. You will notice your breathing pattern withing the first minute. We have a tendency to breathe from our upper chest, shallow and rapid. When you take a moment to focus on your breath and move it downwards to your diaphragm, you fill your lungs, oxygenate your blood to higher degree which in turn sharpens your thought process.
 Let me list some of the benefits of meditation, I wont go into detail since there are many sources of information on this:

  • Increased pain tolerance
  • Decreased stress
  • Higher cognitive function as you age
  • Access to greater creativity
  • Stronger immune system
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Emotional balance
This short list presents some very good reasons to sit for a few minutes each day and breathe.  
The list is by no means exhaustive and yet if there were a pill or a drink that offered all of the above, people would get it in droves.When we find out all you have to do is just sit for a short time each day, it seems too good to be true.

 When we train in our school like many other styles, we start and end our training with a moment of seated meditation. It is actually a moment of reflection and contemplation on our training path. It prepares us for the class that is about to begin, and at the end of class it allows us to reflect on the class that just took place, our performance and where we need to focus in our training. We prepare ourselves to leave the dojo and to face the world once again. While this sitting is essential to training, it is the sitting we do in our daily lives, the one we make part of our day that effects a change in us.

We have a tendency to live our lives at a breakneck pace. Our days are full of activities and we are constantly running from dawn until we go to sleep. In the course of all this activity (because many of us will say I don't have time) I invite you to allocate 5-15 minutes just to sit and be still. Some of us will find this very easy. Most will find it difficult at first. What do you mean be still? Do you mean not do anything? Does this mean I cant go online, get on the phone, send a text, read my email and call someone?  If that sounds like your idea of  not doing anything this will be a real challenge for you. 

For 5-15 minutes just sit and focus on your breathing. Period. 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes, I will be curious to hear the stories. Leave me a comment.

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sensei Orlando

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Virtue of Humility

Some time ago a gentleman entered the dojo to inquire about classes. This is not the first time this has happened and is quite a frequent occurrence. In this instance after some discussion about the class schedule, I invited the gentleman to come try a class to see if it was the type of training he wanted to pursue. I usually get a  number of responses at this point.
They range from- "OK I'll be back on x day to try the class." to  "Can I just sign up now?' However this time was different. He informed me that he was a black belt in another style and could he just wear his black belt  to class. For a moment I thought he wasn't serious, I realized he was. So after some thought (about 5 seconds worth), I politely said that he could not wear his black belt from a completely unrelated style to a new school where he would not know the techniques. His demeanor changed instantly and he proceeded to tell me that he had trained for many years. My response was that he should endeavor to find a school in the style he had devoted so much time to and that if he needed help in that, I would be willing to offer it. He declined (not so politely) and left the school.

This incident stayed with me for several reasons. Initially I was dumbfounded that someone would even suggest they wear their black belt as a student just beginning in a new school. It spoke of an ego of immense proportions. It was (in my opinion) very disrespectful. After some more thought I realized that the reason this situation gave me pause was the lack of humility. Humility is actually a very important component in our training and life. In order to undergo years of repetitive, physically and mentally demanding training, you need to be humble. In our school some of the instructors are younger than the students, those students need to have humility in order to learn from these instructors.

I have found that the only way to progress is to not only know when you don't  know something, but to be able to admit that you don't know and to seek out someone who does and learn from them. To be able to do this you must be humble. To acknowledge you lack skill or ability or knowledge in an area and then to seek out a mentor or instructor requires humility. The other side of that equation is that you must accept the instruction from said instructor/mentor. Its not enough to just be there you have to be teachable. I recently had a young student in a class embody this. When I would state a technique she would say I know ( she is 8 years old). So I would say " Great! Show me." Then she would proceed to show me that she didn't know. We all go through this phase as children. The key is not to remain in this phase as adults (or children).

A part of the process in our school when you achieve a high enough rank, is to wear a white belt again. Usually as part of the process of becoming a black belt, you wear a white belt anywhere from 3-6 months. I went through this process several times and it serves a quite a reality check. You can examine if most of your identity is wrapped around your waist or if you embody what you are training regardless of the color of your belt.

This lesson of humility that is learned in the dojo is meant to be practiced outside the dojo as well ( as most of the life lessons are). Leaders, those that are successful almost always possess this quality. If you look at some of the most successful companies in the world, many of them have leaders who self effacing, who do not seek the recognition, who lift others up before themselves.

We often confuse humility with  being timid. Humility is not having an attitude self-debasement or self denigration, rather humility is maintaining pride about who we are, our worth and  accomplishments but without arrogance. It is the opposite of hubris- the excessive and arrogant pride which leads some to believe that they are infallible. Thoughts that usually occur right before a downfall of epic proportions. Humility is the quiet confidence that has no need of boasting, it is about being content to let others discover the depth of our talent or ability. It is a lack of arrogance but not a lack of aggressiveness in the pursuit of  excellence and achievement.

There are several indicators of humility,here are a few:

How do you treat people who may not offer you anything in return?

Do you find it easy to say " You are right" ?

Can you easily ask input from others or do you have ALL the answers?

When working with others do you need to have all the recognition or can you work from the background allowing others to be receive the credit?

Can you see every situation as a teaching moment, even if the teacher is a child?

I am certain there are more indicators of humility in our lives, these are just some questions to get you started.

I hope they set you on a more humble journey through life and your practice.

Sensei Orlando
strong spirit-strong mind-strong body

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Going deeper in your practice

I have taken a short hiatus because I was in contemplation of what my practice meant to me. You may be wondering why after almost  three decades of training would I need to contemplate my practice. Am I not certain of what I have devoted so much time to? Is something still unclear? Aside from the teachings-all of which gently ( and not so gently) coax me to live in the eternal now and not to be concerned with past or future. This presents me with a unique position. Even though I strive to be in the present, am I not the sum of my past history especially in regard to my training on the martial path?

It was this train of thought that led me to pursue the question of what my practice meant to me. What did it mean to go deeper in my practice, was it even possible to go deeper? Were there any depths to be plumbed? I am a firm believer in continually studying especially when it comes to being on a martial path. I have said it before-we are on a summit-less mountain, therefore we never arrive, we never achieve complete mastery. There is always more polishing to be done, always.

With this in mind I began to delve into what may considered reaching a pinnacle in any given path. I wondered if it was becoming a tournament champion. While I no longer participate in tournaments, I do not disparage them. They serve a purpose, albeit a narrow one, in my perspective. Many practitioners feel fulfilled competing in tournaments, for me personally it has always felt hollow. I also feel that if you need external validation of who you are as a martial practitioner then ego may be at work, which really has no place on the path.

What about becoming an accomplished fighter? When you examine this aspect of a martial path, especially in our current times it is possible that the martial aspect of what we do can get overlooked or ignored completely. Certainly it is useful to have the skills of fighting, however if you are in a situation that has degenerated to physical violence it is my belief that you have failed in your training in that moment. Fighting very rarely solves  a situation and usually exacerbates it. Real fighting that occurs in a street setting, where there are no rules is a chaotic, messy, more often than not bloody thing. Its also very very fast. Faster than most who have been dojo trained are prepared to deal with.

So then what does it mean to go deeper? What is it that must be pursued to facilitate this depth? How do I accomplish attaining a deeper level to my practice, if its even possible? Well I can only answer for my path even though I put these thoughts here for you to view and spur you to consider your path and practice. We each walk our own path. I will tell you what I have learned for my practice.

The first paradox that I encountered was that in order to go deeper in my practice I had to completely forget about myself. On occasion we get so wrapped up in ourselves that we forget that our purpose is to give of ourselves, our time, our knowledge. The more you give of you, the more there will be to give. When you are doing these things, you have little time to contemplate yourself.

I next discovered that kata and its practice is the foundation to excellence, notice I didn't say perfection.. I know this may sound like an oversimplification and yet it really is that simple. Practice your kata, embody them, meditate with them. They are the underpinning of everything your art is comprised of.

Once I saw that- the next thing I saw was that I needed to be compassionate and gentle. When I was younger I would scoff and those who would advise me to be gentle, not understanding the wisdom in those words. I felt that if I was strong I needed to demonstrate it and make sure it was known I was strong. Ego in its highest form. It took me many years and many difficult lessons to learn that only those who are truly strong can be gentle. Having compassion showed me to view life from others eyes. Putting myself in the position of others allowed me the perspective to see with empathy.

I am still learning everyday. Each day I have the choice as to how I will be. It is a choice despite what many will say. We choose to be the way we are. We choose our responses to life. Life simply is. We add or subtract the meaning.

What will your choice be each day?

strong spirit-strong mind-strong body
Sensei Orlando