Aliveness in the martial arts can be defined as training against a resisting partner who is using timing, energy, and motion. It means testing out what you know against someone who is not cooperating with you. In martial arts training this makes the gym or dojo a laboratory where the individual student can see for themselves whether or not what they have learned works. While this seems like a self evident and natural idea it hasn’t been employed consistently or effectively in many martial arts schools. What I intend to do is to describe the difference between alive and dead training and why one is more effective and healthy than the other.
Aliveness is important from a technical standpoint because it is the most efficient means to technical mastery and application in the martial arts. It’s also important from a mental health standpoint. Aliveness is an expression of authenticity. Authenticity in the martial arts can only come from critical thinking and testing. The testing must be done in an alive environment. Therefore, aliveness is a tool to achieve authenticity.
What dead training looks like is rote memorization. Often students stand in rows and memorize endless techniques or katas. It’s characterized by lots of air punching and work with cooperative partners. No attempt is made to test the techniques against live resistance as described above. This is what is sometimes called “traditional” martial arts. There shouldn’t be a question anymore that these training methods are antiquated and not very effective. The evidence is there and easy to find for anyone with an open mind and average intelligence. I won’t argue about the effectiveness or lack of it in that type of training. Instead I’ll address the unhealthy mindset that it gives it’s practitioner. This mindset, I think, is way more insidious and harmful than the poor technique achieved by the training methods. It’s just not healthy.
Why is this mindset unhealthy? I’ll list several reasons. The first is that it puts the responsibility for what is true and not true on the instructor and not the student. The instructor in this type of scenario becomes the gatekeeper of not only information and knowledge but also of what is true and not. Because the students don’t have a natural outlet to test what they know they have little choice but to accept what is given them and trust that the greater experience and skill of the instructor will result in good information. The student has to trust that someone somewhere has tested the techniques that they are being taught and found them to be sound. How does the instructor get away with this? They employ several tactics. The main ones are-
- Claim that the techniques are too deadly to be tested.
- Claim some form of lineage from a great master as evidence that what they are teaching is sound.
- Create an atmosphere where to question anything taught is considered to be an insult, dishonorable, disloyal etc.
- By showing great skill in demonstrating techniques against a compliant partner.
- By building credibility using other means such as certificates, trophies, photographs, stories and myths.
- By strictly controlling what students can learn and from whom. No attending other schools, seminars, etc. or at the very least badmouthing other schools and instructors and creating an environment where looking elsewhere for knowledge is discouraged.
In all cases the student is left with no other choice but to accept what is given them. This creates a one way street. The student is the recepticle. There is no need to think or be creative. In fact it’s discouraged. All you need to do is show up and accept what is given. The brain is not actively involved in creativity, problem solving or thoughtful inquiry. Rote memorization and mimicing are all that’s needed.
It really takes a lot of self delusion to accept this type of training as authentic. What you are left with is faith. I define faith as belief in something you have no or inadequate evidence for. You believe because you want to. The problem with this type of belief is that it doesn’t hold up. Evidence will always trump faith. It’s just the way we are built. You can look at the history of Christianity to see this in action. A flat earth, evolution, 6000 year old planet, Noah’s Ark- all of these ideas have been shaped and changed by overwhelming evidence. Christianity no longer kills or imprisons those who think the earth is round. The evidence was too great to deny. When faith meets evidence faith will always lose.
In alive training the student is asked to be an active participant in their own learning. The lines between student and coach are blurred. The drills and problems given in class are designed to encourage the student to test everything for themselves and find their own creative solutions. At SBG there is nothing that is taught in class that won’t be tested against a resistant partner that very same class. The power in that is incredible. It keeps everything 100% honest. The way it works is that the instructor shows a technique and then after students are familiar with it they get a chance to try it against a resistant partner using some sort of drill (Drills used at SBG). This gives the instructor and the students vital information. For the instructor it’s valuable because they can see whether or not students are having success with what was taught. If students aren’t having success then the instructor can conclude that what they taught wasn’t effective or that they didn’t teach it effectively. It’s a built in BS meter.
For the student they get a chance to try the technique against a resistant partner. This lets them know if they can pull it off or not. If they do have some success then they can trust their own experience and know that what they were taught works. They don’t have to take the instructor’s word for it. If they don’t have success then they can use critical thinking and decide whether or not the technique given was the right one for them. At an alive gym students are free to accept or reject anything that’s taught. Because everything is tested over and over it becomes self evident what they should keep or discard. It’s honest and healthy. The instructor no longer is the gatekeeper for the truth. The student accepts that responsibility themselves. This is better because they can better determine what is true for them. Especially if given a good testing ground.
One of the great advantages of this type of training is that you immediately begin to see lots of variety in the way people approach the sport. The combined knowledge gained by this type of creative environment is much more than can be contained in one superstar master instructor. There is no attempt to control a students expression of their creativity. They are free to build whatever game works for them. They can learn whatever they want from whomever they want. The only “faith” needed in this type of training environment is faith in their own experience and their ability to make accurate judgements based on thorough testing.
It’s obvious how much healthier this is. The student is engaged in creative play, problem solving, testing and making judgements based on their own experience. They need not trust anyone else’s experience but their own. There is no attempt to control what the student chooses to accept or reject.
It’s healthy for the instructor because it breaks the caste system that permeates many traditional arts where strong lines are drawn between student and teacher. The teacher no longe has to hold all the knowledge. They no longer have to decide for the student what is true and what is not. They no longer have to use the control techniques listed above as a replacement for real testing in an alive environment. It requires the instructor to not get attached to any particular method or idea or technique and to submit everything to the testing environment. The instructor no longer has to rely on myth, intimidation and other falsehoods to get the student to accept what’s given. In fact the instructor is free from having a need for the students to accept what’s taught. All the instructor has to do is to set up the testing environment and allow it to unfold. This detachment from the outcome is way healthier. It allows the training to be authentic.