Reply to Sanko: Martial Methodology

A discussion about certain martial ideas brought about this reply, which was too long to post in the comment section so I rerouted it here for convenience.

Tim Larkin never specifically advertised that he was teaching a hybrid or internal style, nor did he say his line/lineage was from San Soo. So I had to undertake a personal discovery quest to see what, if any, relationship his training methods had to martial arts.

A lot of what you say makes sense, Sanko, and I don’t necessarily disagree with. I believe that having a different perspective and experience, has led me to slightly different conclusions. They do not negate your views, but more like adds to them.

For the last few months, I’ve had weekly conversations with a (true) pacifist, a Jehovah’s Witness. They’re related to the Seventh Day Adventists in general Protestant doctrine/dogma. Their information network is surprisingly advanced across the world and their Watchtower magazine has some accurate intel on human affairs. They sent me a martial arts article: the Witness’ stand on martial arts. Much of what it wrote was unsurprising to me, since a lot of American martial arts dojos are external and focused more on fighting than resolving conflicts, legal or social. This is seen by them as escalating conflict, not a solution to conflict or an avoidance of it. My views agreed with the article’s statements and facts, but not with its conclusion. For I am not a pacifist, true or fake. I don’t participate in anti war protests only to join OWS (as many did) when Bush went out of office and Afghanistan/Iraq disappeared off the 24 hour news cycle. My motto on self defense, in answer to people’s queries were: “Peace through superior firepower”. Whether that’s a .50 caliber bullet or a gravity driven strike using human bone and mass matters not in the least.

Most students in martial arts, in general, start out as people who need a pattern to adhere to, else they get confused and cannot assimilate information. You may print out some of the information on the differences between power generation for external vs internal and how it applies to joint locks, strikes, and throws, and a beginner isn’t going to be able to just absorb that data the way more advanced/experienced students might. The Japanese believed stringently on pattern learning, partially due to cultural reasons, partially due to the lack of teachers in Japan at the time of Funakoshi. They got kind of overloaded. In the US, that produced McDojos. In Japan, it produced something similar. This means that on top of the habits people learned in life, they also learned a lot of other habits in martial arts that they couldn’t control. I bring this up not to belittle the pride and work of the Japanese, but to describe the setting in which martial arts came from Japan to the US. The US took even faster to the “pattern” drills and learning methods of the Japanese mass produced form of karate, since it was “exotic Asian culture” to boot. However, the problem was that the Japanese often tried to tell their students to think for themselves because Japan is a strict hierarchy in which the subordinates have little freedom of action to begin with in business and daily life. But in America, nobody felt confident enough to challenge the Japanese methods and culture they learned, because they weren’t Japanese. They weren’t “authentic” enough. That kind of “lack of confidence” breeds cult like behavior, which has resulted in training methods which have been passed on for generations but have never been questioned. These habits have resulted in students that have never surpassed the Shu stage of learning through copying what they see. Not even in their own style they spent decades learning and practicing. It’s not because they were physically lazy, but because their mind never expanded the way it should have. People often coral these negative trends unto McDojos like ATA TKD, but this trend is manifest in almost all dojos/dojangs one way or another. It even extends to Wing Chun, due to its popularization. Shaolin Temples have also gotten on the game one way or another.

Now, for someone who grew up in a part of the world that was surrounded by social and asocial forms of violence, what is the point of knowing that? When an American has to use H2H skills, attacks or defenses, for real, they won’t have their Master or instructor there to tell them what to do. For them to adhere to the legal rules as well as the ethical rules, American students must learn what it is they are facing and the consequences of their actions. It cannot be a habit of where people punch each other in the face like some kind of social monkey protocol dance. I’ve seen several people who may have a superficial level of physical skill in fighting or striking, but they have absolutely no control over it. They fight dirty and as powerfully in sparring as they do as if they got jacked in the streets. These individuals have inculcated martial habits, but they have no control and thus these “skills” will avail them not in a real life encounter. They’re just playing Russian roulette. Either they over react, and kill someone they shouldn’t have, or they underreact and not kill someone they should have (which means they are the one that die). Other martial artists call this “mushin” or Musashi’s Void/state of no mind, but I don’t consider it real mushin. I call it a habit. They have a habit of punching strongly. They have a habit of panicking when they feel like they are in danger and so they use moves they know worked, because these moves they used to survive a knife assault. Except they’re sparring in the dojo (or tournament) and there is no knife. The context is inappropriate, but because they acted “without thought”, only luck determines whether they end up in a body bag due to a bad decision or whether they end up in jail due to manslaughter. Either it works too well, or it doesn’t work at all. That, on a self defense level, is inadequate if you ask me. One guy I know keeps getting disqualified from tournaments because he starts using eye rakes and groin strikes because he once survived a knife attack. That response is now “conditioned in him” and he can’t get rid of it. That is not so much self defense as a form of PTSD. The inability to operate effectively in all contextual environments.

To go back to your comments on habits, specifically mental ones, the human body has two brains (or even 4). The one at the top of the spine and the one at the bottom or base of the spine (also known as the dan/tan-tien in Eastern spheres). A student first uses the cerebral cortex, the frontal lobes, to process martial knowledge, especially the ones that use vision (monkey see, monkey do). However, this is not the part of the brain that handles 100% correct judgment in survival conditions of life/death. The hindbrain, the back of the brain right above the cervical upper spine, aka lizard brain is what one needs to activate and train. Almost everybody knows of situations where a trained fighter suddenly starts brawling and forgets everything he learned or practiced. This is a case of where the hindbrain rejects the data from the logical front lobes as being insufficient for defense (or its rejected by the emotional monkey brain). Theoretically it may look good on paper, these martial art complicated moves, but the hindbrain rejects them as taking too long and requiring too much complicated processing. External martial artists in the ancient histories thus chose to solve this issue by attempting to turn off the brain at the top of the spine and use only spinal type reflexes, dantien thinking. Since power also came from the hips and torso, as well as power of breath and oxygen, a lot of attention was focused there. When it came to a life and death encounter, the less time it took neural signals to go up and down the spine, the better, since the option was always “kill them first before they kill you”. Doesn’t require a lot of thought and these actions/reactions can be trained and conditioned to be almost automatic.

In civilian life right now, this kind of reaction is inappropriate and also often times ineffectively conditioned. Meaning the highest probability of a person who has to choose between reacting via killer instinct and escaping is… freezing up and thus dying. Often times when the brain triggers a feedback OODA loop that says “signal invalid” when something happens that the trained student never saw before in the dojo, there’s a system stall effect, and then a reboot is attempted and if the person survives the time it takes to reboot, the hindbrain then takes control. And then the hind brain overrides the inculcated conditioning of reflexes and replaces it with less complex, more certain, solutions. The human mind is a bit more complex than that, but in general it’s a good description of the process, I believe. This doesn’t even include situations where people kill each other in bar fights due to some argument or issue over a woman or some song some guy was playing on the jukebox machine. You just have to look up the obituaries in the US to see how many those happen in a month. I’m pretty sure the incidences are higher, not lower, in South Africa. These “emotional” fights are triggered by the monkey brain, the parts of the brain that regulate emotion and social survival. If a person reacts to a life and death struggle with conditioned reflexes, they will never know if their reactions were correct, nor will they know whether those reactions will even activate. If their dojo training does not 100% mirror the reality of street violence, they will lock up, because they are operating on “no need to think” habits. Habits only work when there’s no interference. Habits also either kill people in emotional fighting or gets people killed in emotional fights. Since their habit is to fight, fighting thus escalates the problem, does not resolve it.

That’s one reason why inculcating habits is not necessarily the best thing for a student in martial arts if they seek self defense.

Historically, the ancients solved this matter in a relatively brutal yet simple way. They trained in a fashion that very closely simulated battlefield and life/death conditions. Deathmatches, duels to the death or to first blood or first maiming/crippling, were common if not expected of a traveling warrior. The warrior thus learned while traveling the world, not sitting in a dojo all the time. Those that lacked the ability, died. A relatively good way to tell between the real deal and the BS deal. However, modern Americans don’t train that way. I don’t even think Wild West Americans trained that way either… Thus relying on the habitual reactions to save one’s life, is not a good bet when training American civilians or military personnel. Miyamoto Musashi first killed an opponent in a duel when he was 13 years old. That’s the “external training” used by the ancients. The modern day “external training” is nothing but a pale shadow compared to that. Musashi even wrote in his book later that he does not know what brought about his early victories. It was not skill, as he considered it or mastery, but some element of luck, natural talent, or just the fact that his opponents lacked strategy (they became predictable). That included the 26 or so duels/matches he had while he was young.

Without my experience with Tim Larkin’s methods, I would have continued attempting to make my training more realistic, like the Kyokushin guys have. But I was given an alternative. One that didn’t prioritize external training methods for results, but one that prioritized internal training methods for results. It was a hybrid, something that had the same goal of many external martial arts (immediate skill, power, and ability to defeat one or many foes) but used the methods most often found in Taiji Chuan (slow movement).

My point in the end is that because external training has become a pale shadow of itself (necessarily so if you ask me given the situation most civilians live in on this planet), internal training has just as many benefits, and less of the risks or detriments. Instead of going extreme with external training (like Kyokushin or Kajukenpo folks that I know) I instead work at it from the other way around. Instead of saying “I need to improve my power in this hit cause the foe isn’t feeling it”, I ask myself “based upon sport medicine analysis, what kind of hit did it take to produce permanent damage and injury in a patient?” And then, how do I generate and conserve that power using my body? If the power generated is too great for my muscles to make, I use my body weight. If the power generated is too much even for that, I find ways to make my transfer more efficient by increasing my accuracy. The concept that a needle doesn’t need a lot of force to penetrate your skin whereas a baseball bat has 10X-1000X the force, yet cannot slice through your arm…

To improve accuracy, I must improve my mental intent. I cannot simply go on auto pilot and let habits do the work. By working my brain more, I also am challenged by the different levels of force required for things like criminal violence, kidnapping, robbery, social fighting, drunks acting out, and so on and so forth. I don’t habitualize myself to doing one thing in every situation, but in judging the correct context and using the correct tool for all situations. That requires judgment abilities, the mind, whether monkey brain, logical cortex, or hindbrain. Instead of reacting to sight, which is predominantly a visual cortex task, I focus instead on feeling. This taps into the hind brain and the central mid brain that controls motor coordination. The pathway between mid brain and hindbrain is much shorter, so I can act almost as fast as a dantien/spine base reflex, but with far better “timing”. Timing, by Musashi, is superior to “speed”. He should know given what he went through. My sources and experience concur. The use of superior sensitivity to gain superior timing is worth it. More than worth it.

To move away from theory and go into applications, which all martial arts have a kindred liking for… It had been a few days since I entered the aikibujutsu dojo taught by a student of Obata Toshishiro, founder of Shinkendo (in the US). We were doing self defense drills with a tanto, acting as a gun. Someone points it at the small of your back, you then turn around, sweep/clear the gun, control the arm, then throw the foe using forearm under/around chin + step from tenkan *180 degree turn* I had a very strong visualization of the move, but it was the first time for me doing it. I moved automatically and smoothly, using my body weight to accelerate my forearm, hook under the chin, and combine my center with their center, to move them down and back out. I wasn’t using the technique. I was creating reality from my imagination. When they wanted me to make more complicated movements like wrap my forearm around the head, things got disconnected, but the first time, it was very smooth and I had relatively good power transition, for moving from a standing start backwards at least. When I turned around, I was looking at her chin. She was around 17-18, and she had this look of surprise on her face, or at least what I thought was surprise. At the time I was taking her down, meaning my weight was distributed almost totally on my front knee, bent slightly forwards, I suddenly made the decision to grab her to halt her fall. The force I used on my forearm was very light, as I powered it with my body momentum, not the muscles or momentum impact. Once I felt the head move up and back, I stopped moving it forward and simply maintained contact. While we were on mats and she should have enough experience at ukemi to fall on a mat backwards without hurting herself, none of this even entered my thoughts.

The reason was simple. I was practicing this move because I wanted to preserve the safety of both myself and my partner. Because while visualizing the move to do it for the first time, I immediately went back to my TFT training and visualized slamming the target’s head into the ground, shattering the skull via using my body weight momentum to accelerate that skull as fast as I can downwards. Thus I had automatically made corrections to the movement to prevent such a consequence. I didn’t even expect my first try to drop the other person. Thus I was taken by total surprise. I was taken by total surprise but my body had already acted according to my previous decision to prevent any harm to my training partner. I had given my body the objective, and my body obeyed, without sending a clarification request back to HQ center asking “should we move, she might fall and get hurt”. In case you are wondering whether these matters were something I over exaggerated for aikibujutsu, in another few weeks, a student of around 16 years old came back after a long hiatus of training. We’ll call him “A” for short. “T” is an adult, with kids, who trained in karate and has a conditioned response to go hard or fast because that’s how he was trained. When doing shihonage

T went at his usual brisk pace, which resulted in A hitting the back of his head on the mat and then getting rather dizzy for a few seconds. And I saw it. I was about 20 feet away but I saw it. I knew immediately that given the way T was exerting the rotational energy and transfering it, and A’s obvious “rustiness”, that A was going to hit the mat hard. And he did hit pretty hard. I flinched at what would be the :27 second mark in the video. Just before the drop. Imagine if that was on concrete or dirt. T afterwards looks regretful and sad, guilty that he hurt someone. Well, if he didn’t want to hurt someone he should have stopped himself by issuing a command, but he didn’t. Because that wasn’t how he was trained. He was trained to act using habits. Habits that don’t necessarily apply to every situation.

When Martial Arts in the Ancient Days, 2500 or more years ago in China, was developed, people mostly used it as a battlefield weapon. Then later, as things calmed down a bit, they couldn’t go around killing everybody in a bar brawl so they learned “self defense” applications that moderated things that were absolutely lethal into things that could be controlled (chin na). But these techniques were developed by, for, and with the thought in mind that the student was already an accomplished warrior and had at least survived one life/death encounter. Because if they hadn’t, then it was meaningless to teach them how to defend themselves against drunks when they would easily get killed by bandits. Bandits first, drunk brawlers second. Taiji Chuan, from what I’ve researched, was a system designed with the intent in mind to re-train various martial artists that had been trained in the hard external arts from Persia, Muslim, or Mongolia. Arts that deviated from Chan Buddhism, Chi gong, pairing breathing with movement ,Sun Tzu, Taoism, etc. People often told me that community hall Taiji Chuan is only for health and it cannot teach a person things they can use for self defense. The first time I went into a Taiji Chuan class, I did a few brush knees form movements, and I already learned a few things I could apply to my own abilities and toolbox. It was not what people said should have happened, so I often wonder how different I am from the average student that does these things… What this tends to mean for me is that martial arts in America attempts to teach the complicated techniques and ingrain them as “habits” and “reflexes” when in fact they are training out of order. Their students lack a fundamental foundation, so they have to make up things as they go, which can have disastrous results years later. By training the internal way, in the simplest fashion, and at the lowest order of difficulty, lethal force, a student will be given a far stronger foundation in learning other martial art styles. The combination of both external and internal ideas and methods. I focus on internal methods right now, but I used to have to focus on external methods to build a foundation.

Dan, over at his Traditional Fighting arts blog, suffered a spine injury in some gashuuko or training camp in SA I believe. Because when he did a kick, and it was grabbed, some guy who didn’t like him then look at him, and instead of dropping and resetting the spar, swept Dan’s other leg, resulting in Dan landing on a rock or some hard object on the ground, dislocating a section of his spine. External training of that kind, what many consider risky while others consider traditional and useful, does not so much as prolong people’s life as it ends up shortening it. I don’t think self defense, in order to acquire it, requires you to damage yourself in such fashions, accidentally or on purpose. Since there’s no one size fits all solution, the best bet is to teach the student how to fish, not keep giving them fish to feed themselves with.

When I want to kill, cripple, or maim someone, that intent is crystal clear in my mind and I will devote my entire being to accomplishing that goal. I will desire and want it more than I want water or food when thirsty and starved. When I don’t want to do that, I will devote the same energy to preventing it from happening, the same way I would stop a saw from cutting off my arm. Everything my body does follows my intent. That is my goal, and it is far more effective, in my view, than the conditioned responses of most students in martial arts that I’ve seen. Not for tournaments, but for the chaotic reality of life itself.

P.S. At the time and afterwards, I had wondered if what I did was because I was training with a female. Then I realized I did the same thing with the 14 year old brown belt (that looks like he’s 18). Until I was comfortable with the technique, I was going to make sure that everything that happened was according to my will. After about 4-5 reps, I felt a lot more comfortable that they wouldn’t crack open their skulls from anything I or they did.

The reason why I like Taiji Chuan and slow movement type training is not because I think I’ll need to fight other martial artists in tournaments or streets or Taoist masters. It’s because it gives me a level of control over myself that I find very beneficial. When I know that I won’t kill somebody accidentally or in a fit of berserker rage, I can attack people without hesitation when needed. Before, I was often worried that either I would do too much or do too little. Before TFT, after 9/11, I was mostly worried about getting killed, etc. After TFT, i was worried I would kill people who didn’t need to die. Problems problems as they say. If it isn’t one thing causing hesitation, it is another thing. To me, it’s not reflexes that slow me down, but all the mental processing that happens depending on the chaotic unpredictable nature of fighting, wars, or battles. Instead of increasing my reflex speed, I increase my timing and judgment abilities, to the point where I can shut down my monkey brain, divert processing to the cerebral cortex and other parts of my brain that control perception and body coordination. That stunt guy you linked to before about the phonebook and the hammerfist shock transfer, he was standing on one of those plum poles in Fight Science and some guy threw ninja stars at him. When he was up on the 8 feet one, wobbling around, he said he experienced a matrix moment where he slowly saw the star pass him by and had plenty of time to process things. He sounded like that was his first time. I rely on that far more than I rely on “conditioned reflexes”. This, however, is not something people often can get through “training”. It’s something they are either born with or they develop through encounters with deadly danger. The ability to Turn Off portions of your brain and divert the processing power to what matters in a fight, while at the same time shortening internal neural communication loops and streamlining orders and obedience. Mushin

If I have students or friends whom I can train to the point where they start worrying about the same things I worry about after I took TFT… I will have considered that training a success.

For the time being, I focused primarily on American issues, and avoided South African or South Korean issues since I don’t live there nor have I studied the martial culture to a sufficient point where I can get a grasp of their training requirements.

P.P.S. I hope I have aggregated the data points together in a sufficiently cohesive manner. This topic started linking together a lot of things that aren’t necessarily a single topic to most other people, but to me it all happens as if they are the same core strand of thought, bound together. Some things like neurology and battlefield psychology and OODA loop cycles, I avoided elaborating on. Suffice it to say that years of research and development can’t easily be summarized in a convincing fashion.

Explore posts in the same categories: Traditional Martial Arts

9 Comments on “Reply to Sanko: Martial Methodology”


  1. You make many points, each really deserving a separate response, a separate discussion. Again, time does not allow.

    On the point of pacifism, I have for a long time considered that option. I find myself heavily influenced by the Anabaptist and Seventh-Day Adventist position of “turn the other cheek”, and on affairs of religion (if I were to be persecuted for my religious beliefs), I am in agreement with these groups that the pacifist approach is the only sanctified one. Yet, I am not a pacifist. I am, however, a conscientious objector and believe that most wars are morally void and driven by greed and power lust, in which I want no part.

    I agree with you on the McDojo and monkey-see-monkey-do problem. I find however that beginners often need to the monkey-see-monkey-do approach, because they do not have the kinetic sense to process the movement cognitively. We are forced by our education systems to sit behind books the whole day—there is very little time for movement and learning through movement, so many people need to be led into the murky waters of kinaesthetic expression, which is something that comes to them very uneasily.

    Self-defence skill, having no control, self-defence law and ethics and all that goes with these are all big topics. I’ll not initiate them here and have written about many of these problems on my blog already.

    You mention that instinctive reflexive training based on conditioning the “hind brain” is inappropriate in civilian life. I agree to a degree and that is why I wrote the posts on “Why Taekwon-Do Is Not Good for Self-Defence.” At the same time, there are contexts where such external methods are appropriate. Here in South Korea where I live it is definitely inappropriate, but in some parts of South Africa where I come from (and as you guessed), such violent responses may very well be appropriate reactions.

    I think part of our disagreement on habits is basically a semantic disagreement. For me, all types of learning is “habit”-forming, since a habit is merely a synaptic link. Learning 2 + 2 = 4 is just as much a habit as learning how to do certain type of kick – they all involve the same thing . . . the forming and reinforcing of particular synaptic links.

  2. ymarsakar Says:

    Your use of the term “habit” sounds more like a skill. That may be why you say walking and swimming are habits. I don’t use habits to refer to skills. They’re different things to me. A skill is a tool. A habit is an automatic process that just goes on regardless of whether the person thinks about it or not, can control it or not. OCD are habits, in which the user is controlled, not the controller. When OCD becomes less severe, is due to the user gaining control. Thus they are still routines they follow, but are no longer a habitual existence but something the user has gained control of, if only imperfectly. Imperfect is better than no control, however, and there are many with no control at both proficient and non-proficient levels.

    A skill, since it is a tool can be controlled. A habit is not. A person can want to quit smoking and drugs, but the reality is a bit different from what people “wish for”.

    In this fashion we have illustrated the key difference between rote learning )memorization) and critical thinking *(thinking for yourself). I subscribe to the latter far, far more than the former.

    I wrote about this on my blog, but when I was playing a game with kid that was interested in kenjutsu, I chose instead to use a hybrid teaching method. I would show the move, but when the child could not replicate the feat to an extent I judged proficient, I would place her hand on my shoulder so that she could feel my muscle turn on when I said turn on your shoulder when I did the move. This a fundamental requirement to learning how to tense to absorb the force, then release the tension and let the force be deflected. I could feel how her timing was off when I did a slow downward cut and she blocked it. I could feel that neural delay. That neural delay, itself, is the killer when it comes to real life fighting. The eyes are too slow to react with. A person that has used their eyes to develop their skill, will have an even harder time learning to forget the eyes and rely on the feel. Such things, the true essence of the craft and the skill, cannot be seen externally on the surface. A lot of people, beginners, can mimic the movements, but they aren’t learning the meat, the internal bone marrow. It only looks like they need it because that’s what they can do, but what they can do is not anywhere near the maximum potential they have. It’s not so much they need it, as that is the only habit they gotten comfortable with, the only thing they CAN do. In one respect, sensitivity and feeling are an entire different skill branch, one of the five senses, being opened up. A requirement before harmony and the third eye can be opened, which can be considered the sixth sense.

    This can be said to be another example of what I mean by people misusing training tools in a fashion that does not lead to the goal they thought they were aiming for. One of the reasons why Taiji Chuan, the martial aspect, is pretty unpopular is because people find that they literally can do much of anything in Taiji Chuan, without the internal feeling and control. The joints themselves cannot flex, and feel limited. Even those that can do double side splits, may not have as easy a time opening the hip seam for full hip energy transfer as people may have thought.

    The reason why there has to be a connection between the physical movements and the brain is because if the brain is not controlling the movement from the beginning, this is now an automatic program. One cannot fight battles using an autopilot. Just like wars can’t be fought with AI programs at the moment. Cause the ability to think outside the box, the ability to be creative, the ability to think and process new info, is critical to victory or survival. If it is so critical for survival, then what excuse can there be for a student to focus on the slow reacting eyes and other things of that nature? The common excuse is that we don’t need such things in the modern world or for sports. I say because the world is the way it is, because people do sports, they need this even more, for balance.

  3. ymarsakar Says:

    For clarification, not every point I made is something I wanted a response on. It’s fine if people are only interested in some things and not others. I myself don’t see it like that, at least not any more. I don’t see a problem as a component, I try to see it as a whole. The details may interest others but it may not. I do not seek to control that aspect. I’m much more concerned about the accuracy of my conclusions.

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