The Consequences of Classical Training

Tony Annesi

“You get out what you put in.” We have all heard this truism before. But we sense that one puts effort into one’s martial art and gets out something completely different. In a traditional martial art, especially, the benefits may not be so obvious as a plaque, a trophy, a black and blue badge of courage or the praises of the pugilistic press. What do we get out for what we put in?

Author's Note:

In a previous article I have redefined the term classical and traditional to mean different things. When referring to classical arts, I usually mean arts rigidly taught to preserve the movements and methods of old. When referring to traditional arts I usually means those arts drawn from the classical and adhering to certain virtues of those older arts but arts which nonetheless can be adjusted to contemporary times. For example Katori Shinto Ryu is a classical bujutsu while Shotokan is a traditional budo. However, for this article, I have used the terms interchangeably in order to avoid repetitiousness. Here I use classical and traditional as a unity to distinguish them from non-traditional or sportive forms.


One man works up a sweat sparring other black belts in preparation for the monthly area tourney. he works hard, his skills improve, his lungs become more efficient, his reactions are honed and his feelings of self-value increase. Another student repeats a kata dozens of times adding flourishes and expressions which will catch the judges’ eyes. His muscles are worked, his balance is bettered and, as the feeling for his form is firmed, his self-esteem increases. A third practitioner adds another board to the already awesome stack in front of him. he gears himself up for the break which will certainly astound both the judges and the crowd. He has added power to his knife-hand strike, taught himself to go beyond pain, and thus has increased his sense of self-worth.

And when each comes home with tangible evidence of how he has bettered himself, he will be sure that it was all worthwhile. The judges and the crowd have conferred visibility on his accomplishments. As for the losers, they have not done all that work in vain. But they must join their cousins, the traditional (i.e. non-tournament) martial artists who train like they do, but seek only personal verification for the values. The sports-oriented practitioner may profit as much from his practice as the quiet traditionalist, but the traditionalist (whether karate-ka, aiki-student, or judo-player) aims at different goals. The sportster often asks the judges for confirmation. The classicist somehow seems satisfied without asking a soul.

For the sincere martial artist who seeks personal benefits from training, both accustomed accomplishments and, at a later stage, some advanced attainments are possible...and without satisfying a board of seniors who are less attuned to his personal values than is he himself. The consequences of classical training are there with or without trophies. All one has to do is recognize them.

Exercise, especially exercise which uses all the muscles of the body, which builds strength, flexibility, and aerobic efficiency is healthful and the proper use of the muscles develops coordination, good posture and thus physical grace. The exercises used in the martial arts are movements which can also be used to defend oneself. In the fertile soil of self-defense, martial artists toil with the tools of exercise. What grows is the flower of coordination and health. Within this flower are the seeds of a new garden, the non-physical values: pride, confidence, and self-actualization.


Confidence: Pride in Practice

It is taken for granted even by non-martial artists that self-defense ability can work toward producing a healthier self-image. Self-image is a combination of one’s ability and one’s self-value. Bullies often are persons who know their physical abilities but doubt their value. Their marks are persons who may know their value but doubt their physical abilities. For them, self-defense balances the scales. It gives the former scapegoat confidence in his ability to protect his values.

The martial arts allow a person to feel good about himself by earning his way. His achievements produce pride since they are a direct display of his abilities. it used to be this way outside the dojo, but no longer. A job promotion often means as little as a grade promotion in school. Sometimes it is earned but as often it is attained through subtle manipulation, less than subtle dishonesty, or just sitting there long enough. Aggressiveness, which used to be thought of as a virtuous trait, has turned into rapaciousness. Self-interest has become egotism. Earning one’s way has been converted to getting one’s way. The oriental martial arts try to avoid this. Confidence produces a personal pride and ca itself work toward self-protection. Muggers (and bullies) do not want to test that person who seems alert and confident, purposeful and relaxed. Picture a child cowering in the corner of the schoolyard or an adult nervously circling around street toughs who are gathered near her auto. If the bully or the tough wants to take action, these will be their most likely targets. There is no guarantee against being mugged. it can happen to large, tough, confident policeman as well as small, frail, insecure grandmothers, but personal attitude can have a strong bearing on whether or not a persona is considered a likely candidate for an easy fall.

Yoshimitsu Yamada, Aikido Shihan, student of the founder Morihei Ueshiba and head of the New York Aiki-kai takes a morning jog in Central Park. A short, stout oriental in a warm-up suit with a bulge in the back pocket looks like easy prey to a Big Apple picker. When assaulted one morning Yamada Sensei does not react with violence or panic. he simply looks his assailant in the eye and, insulted, says, “Do you know who I am?” The easy pickings suddenly do not seem so easy to the mugger and he flees.

It is hard to fake that kind of confidence. Oh, one can walk though The Commons with one’s back straight at a leisurely but not-to-leisurely pace, never twitching to look at the invisible assassins which are sure to be around each tree, but will this pseudo-confidence come through to the attacker as the real thing? In other words, does one look like one could handle the situation if need be? Confidence is a personal refusal to panic. The martial arts build that confidence.

Self-Actualization: Mind-Body Harmony

In the Asian martial arts, as in many other physical activities, conscious deliberation is too slow to be effective. Therefore, in order to develop instantaneous reactions, one must train, usually by constantly repeating techniques. The result is reaction without interfering rationality. I welcomes this plunge into a-rationality in my initial martial arts training. I already possessed a reasonable ability to intellectualize, so this discipline was valuable to balance my deliberate side, but not to overshadow it.

My early experiences with judo, ju-jutsu and karate typified the a-rational approach. The repetition melted me into a state of mu-shin (no-mind) and allowed my body to “absorb” the techniques. This was not really mind-body harmony, but the intentional numbing of the mind to teach the body. It was like learning to swim by being thrown into the lake, or learning to ride a bicycle by trail and error.

Intelligent people, whether or not they give their mind over to mu-shin during practice, often reflect rationally on this a-rational exercise after a work-out. Zen-Buddhists may not advocate this, but I think it is essential to the development of a well-balanced martial artist. I have known far too many practitioners, who after years of a a-rational training, can perform techniques excellently but cannot analyze or adjust their movements to new circumstances or strategies. Rationality has its place as well as a-rationality. A punch may be a purely a-rational reaction, but the strategy which sets up the opening for the punch, the choice of training used to perfect the punch, and the decision of when, where, and how much to train the punch are all rationally derived.

A rigidly a-rational approach to martial arts training would be akin to making football players excellent tacklers runners, blockers, passers and receivers, but never giving them signals in the huddle nor playbooks to study. Cranial calisthenics and corporeal contemplation should occur in equal proportions. The practitioner can then begin to draw mental lessons from physical action as well as physical lessons through intellectual exertion. It is this mutual interchange that produces the distinct satisfaction of applying, in balance, one’s entire being.

An Example of the Process: Dealing with Pain and Fear
Fear is heightened by pain, pain is increased by fear.

Danny was a judo student of mine who was so afraid of falling as a beginner that he would tighten up, grit his teeth and take a terrible fall. he was so intimidated by possible injury that he actually contributed to it. To make things worse, he had a legitimately low pain threshold, so that I could not truthfully say to him that there was no cause for alarm. The pain and fear may have been ”all in his head” but it was nevertheless real pain and fear. he had not invented it, but he had exaggerated it. It took Danny a long time to get over this because at that time, I had not developed a way to help him deal with an exaggerated but natural reaction. I did not realize that the way was implicit in the method of nearly every martial art.

We are all apprehensive of the unknown to some extent. We reason that there is a 50/50 chance that the unknown may bring something unpleasant. What is worse is knowing only a little about what lies out there, but nothing at all about how to deal with it. More frightening that The Unknown can be The-Known-but-Unexperienced, especially when we are certain that we cannot deal with it, that the odds are more than 50/50 against us. Of course, our lack of experience is what makes us so sure that we cannot cope, yet to get experience we must cope. So, we tip-toe into the darkness, hoping to find a light-switch before an edge of broken glass finds our bare feet, the better to now the room next time.

Few of us are experienced in pain. And those of us who are, are experienced in only specific kinds: banging a thumb, bumping a knee, breaking a bone, or receiving a concussion. All of these are transient. The pangs are felt, endured, and pushed aside, but often with the wrong attitude. We do not forget them, but we try to. Few of us use suffering as a tool unless we are athletes. We do not test ourselves with discomfort or even say to ourselves, “Well, if I can endure that, my next painful experience will be nothing!” Instead, we try to forget and thus we are just as afraid of the next ordeal (since we never can completely forget) and so it is just as painful.

Not so in the martial arts. First there was beginner’s distress: fear of embarrassment (which is actually fear of failure.) It was an insignificant discomfort which went away rather quickly for me since I soon realized that the other students were concerned with their own techniques, not mine. The physical workout was tough for a while on muscles which were not used to this sort of movement: a second, equally minor sort of pain no more unique than that which would accompany any new form of exercise. Then, Challenge Time!

In karate it came with basic ippon kumite (one step sparring) in which I had to test my blocks. I was to strike my opponent’s attacking weapon (a hand or a foot) in defense. Will I miss, will my partner hit me? If I panic I will get hit, so I’ll block. OW! Blocking can hurt! The affliction was mentally exaggerated because it was sudden and had not been experienced before. But now I knew that I could block a basic attack and that I could tolerate a modicum of pain to do it. I worked on the block so that it would be performed with better timing, better angle and thus minimize the pain. In doing so, I delivered hundreds and hundreds of blocks which made the throbs almost anachronistic and therefor nothing to get panicked about. Gradually new unknowns were put into the sparring drills so that I had to face new fears and more risks. The attack might be high, medium or low level, or come from an angle. Perhaps there would be an attack and a follow-up, or a two person attack. Occasionally I would get hit, but I could slough it off. I was used to a little pain, after all, and seeing a threatening fist coming at me had become an everyday occurrence.

In judo, proper falling was taught with a hard slap to the mat which stung at first, but which acted as a shock-absorber to prevent a more dangerous sensation. Gradually, the sting became inconsequential. The judo custom of accepting other students’ invitations to randori (freestyle spar) placed me into numerous situations of struggle and falling so that soon no new sparing or falling experience was too out of the ordinary.

In aiki-ju-jutsu, there was little discomfort in falling initially since rolls rather than breakfalls were taught first (these had come in reverse order in judo). Wrist-releases were taught before basic locks, locks before takedowns, takedowns before throws which require a breakfall. It was while learning locks that I first experienced aiki’s variety of pain. The locks were, after all, intended to hurt an antagonist. But in practice, they were put on gradually and I was taught to slap out in submission when it began to hurt. Many students slapped before they felt any shock at all because they were afraid. Others tested the technique by resisting. Neither action was encouraged. Giving up too soon prevented tori (performer of the technique) from knowing the amount of pressure necessary to put on the lock, and prevented uke (receiver of the technique) from building a tolerance to the pain and simultaneously limbering her/his joints. Resisting with strength similarly prevents loosening of uke’s joints and requires tori to snap on the move thus taking the chance of injuring uke. Proper flowing with the movements was urged, instead. Gradually, I became more flexible and suffered less, thus, ironically, I could “resist” the locks longer, not with strength but with superior flexibility. This sort of relaxed resistance compelled tori to put the technique on more precisely therefor improving tori’s skills and making the lock unexpectedly effective when applied on an untrained assailant.

Fear and pain, because they are basic to fighting situations, are dealt with physically (and thus mentally) in all martial arts. having gone through this type of training, something happened to me. There was an overflow into daily life. Things still hurt, to be sure, but now I knew that they could be dealt with, first by accepting pain, then by gradually getting used to it in order to ignore it. After doing this successfully a few times, I could treat fear as I had pain, “Forgetting fear but never disregarding her.” This attitude, in turn reinforced my confidence and self-respect.


Holistic Emphasis

For the experienced, more benefits await but, due to the lack of an holistic emphasis, many lifetime practitioners become disenchanted with what they thought were advanced attainments in the martial arts: strong determination and the martial spirit (dealing with the fact of one’s own death.) Feudal samurai (the misunderstood ideal of many martial artists) were expected to blindly obey and to die even kill themselves, when ordered to do so. (Although the self-sacrifice of the samurai is the extreme example of this, similar but less radical obedience was expected of the Korean Hwarang and the Chinese monks.) For years, the long-time student will look upon these qualities as courage, manliness, or moral rectitude, then, seasoned in the arts but unconditioned by an oriental upbringing, they will doubt their own judgment and/or that of their stylistic ancestors. Blind obedience and self-sacrifice seem distasteful and totally out of place in a peaceful, modern society.

I came to these conclusions rather early in my martial arts career, after about ten years, but did not want to lose respect for the ideals which had profited me in so many ways. Hence, I set the following precept for myself:

Understand the history and traditions of a style but do not be a slave to them,
The final purpose of all the arts is self-development.

I began to break down the “courageous” qualities of the samurai in order to see how one could replicate them without being totally self-sacrificial or unthinking.


To the soldier about to face possible death on the battlefield with a clear mission in his mind, determination is imperative. He must tell himself that his loved ones, his way of life, indeed his very moral essence depends on his mission. he must not value himself too highly lest he endanger the mission in order to save himself and thus jeopardize those things for which he wants to stay alive. He grits his teeth and, trying to put thoughts of death aside, he gets on with the job.

The solder's actions are necessary but not desirable; few would choose to be in his situation. But his ability to get the job done improved by his determination is what is laudable.

In times of peace, it is difficult to simulate a real life-or-death situation, but this is what many martial arts schools try to do. Traditional karate schools, especially, may emphasize hard (supposedly non-contact) sparring in order to place the student into a threatening situation and thus test courage and determination. The fighter is supposed to think, “Nothing can defeat me. I’ll die first.” This ”hard” determination is an expression of extreme self-confidence and pride and as such is valuable as a motivating tool, but it is also unrealistic. One is defeatable and one will accept submission rather than death, at least in most cases even if only to re-engage the fight at a later time. “hard” determination should be used as are all ideals. We do not expect to achieve them in full, but how great are our accomplishments when we try!

After Lulu Ko assumed the chairmanship of his school..., there was held a big festival which everyone...wanted to see. He found so many people in attendance that he could not see the stage....

So Lulu Ko looked back and saw a big pine tree. he walked to the tree and placed his back against it. Whereupon, with his back muscles which had been well developed from years of practicing the Sanchin exercise* , he climbed up the tree....

Master Uechi said, “Can you believe this story?” The students replied that they could not believe it. With that the Master conceded...that the legend could have not possible basis in fact. “However,” he said, “just think if someone believed this.... What goal might he reach by simply training for it, compared to other people who just laughed about it and did not train.”4

“Hard” determination can be dangerous if taken too literally but can serve as strong motivation when tempered with “soft” determination. Some judo and many karate specialists have experienced only that training which relates to “hard” determination. Other judo-ka and most aikido-ka, on the other hand, know only “soft” determination: “Since the mountain is bigger than I, I will go around it rather than through it.” Much more realistic a viewpoint, this type of determination is akin to not making waves and that is precisely its weakness. It is one thing to avoid conflict wherever possible but it is another to avoid possibilities wherever there is conflict. It is wise to circumvent the mount, but not to take too many detours. Detours often lead to mazes more difficult to negotiate than an entire mountain range. Too much avoidance of the difficult results in an attitude of insecurity.

Even Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido and a very religious man who taught a relatively defensive martial art, was not above mixing the hard and the soft. One of his students was having a very difficult time off-balancing a bigger student in the kokyu-ho (breath-exercise) kneeling drill. The idea is to tip the partner up and tilt him over. “Sensei,” the student complained, “he is too strong. I can not budge him.” Indeed the man was enormous. Ueshiba calmly took the student’s place and allowed the giant to grasp his wrists. Suddenly Ueshiba’s knee smashed into the man’s chest at which time he was easily tipped up and tilted onto his back. “I’m not having any trouble,” the master said. Regardless of one’s art, it is important that the quality of determination be looked upon as a mix of hard and soft. Idealism, whether of courage or passivity, must be balanced by reality.

The Martial Spirit

That soldier on the battlefield about to face possible death holds everything as important. When death is close, even poverty is wealth. Everything is important, but in order for this soldier to live, nothing can matter but his fighting. yet if his fighting is everything, depth of concentration can produce a sort of paralysis. he must concentrate on fighting (not on flowers or birds) but must not focus on any part of fighting, nor indeed on the absolute necessity of winning. He must remain alert but not tight, relaxed but not lazy. he must have hard determination but know when to soften it. Things matter, but they cannot matter too much.

For the time in which he is dealing with imminent death, and desiring a continuing life, his mind goes into mu-shin and he reacts with mizu-no-kokoro (mind like water and tsuki-no-kokoro (mind like the moon). Both suggest calmness and reflection, not intellectual reflection but reflection of action. Water is disturbed not willfully by its own action but only by the action of external stimuli, then returns to placidity; meanwhile the moon shines above, seeing all, but remaining undisturbed: mid like water, mind like moon.

The warrior cares about life by not caring about death. He does not desire to die but he cannot afford to be obsessed with living. He must simply be, determined, but nevertheless flowing with fate. He may not believe that he is predestined, but he must assume for his own relaxation and efficiency, that he is.

And so, after the battle is over, he realizes that he has experienced a mind-body harmony which has balanced hard and soft determination, zeal for life and acceptance of death, as well as all the elements of his training.

If a martial artist experienced the hard-to-describe state of mind of the battlefield trooper, it is a desirable achievement, but it is useless unless properly understood and properly put to work off the battlefield and out of the dojo. Determination hard and soft, stoic acceptance of death in order to live, and an appreciation of personal values can be the epitome of the martial spirit, reserved for those with sufficient experience, but it must be framed by a well-balanced philosophy of the martial arts which encompasses more than fighting. The personal values of determination and the martial spirit are available to modern martial artists, but only if they use a little mu-shin, a little rationality, and do not see the goal too narrowly nor hold it too tightly.

* * * * *

Self-defense ability, coordination and health come from many types of martial arts training. Sincere personal effort regardless of immediate reward also produces confidence, pride and self-actualization — the less tangible trophies of classical training. After years of sparring other black belts, repeating kata, or breaking boards, the traditional trainee regardless of belt-level, certificates, plaques or prizes, can attain a special sort of determination and the calm intensity known as “the martial spirit.” Training is the blueprint by which one builds oneself. If the martial artist is to create himself as his own work of art, he will certainly set short-term, tangible goals for himself, but will not lose sight of those goals which he may never completely attain, the consequences of his own method of training.


  1. Mitchell, Joni, “I Think I Understand”, Clouds album, Warner REPRISE records.
  2. I do not imply here that there are no causes worth dying for but that they do not appear at regular intervals like auto-inspection, nor should they be determined, as were the samurai’s, by Big Brother or other servants of mankind.
  3. I once knew an Israeli child who would, in fact, rather die than submit. he was admired for his determination, but think how wasteful it would have been if school toughs took him at his word. Evidently, he had been conditioned with a war-time mentality which was almost perverse in peace-time America, not to mention dangerous.
    Sanchin (three conflicts) is the name of a basic kata in both Uechi-ryu and Goju-ryu karate, as well as other systems. (The LuLu Ko mentioned might well be Woo Loo Chin, the Chinese instructor of Kanryo Higaonna who in turned taught the founder of Goju, Chojun Miyagi.)
  4. NAUKA national News, Official Publication of the North American Uechi Karate Association, Vol. 3, No.1, March 1, 1979, from an address by Master Ryuko Tomoyose.

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