Why we start

Over the past couple of months, our dojo at Hamacho has welcomed a handful of solid new members. This is a big deal for us, since the dojo was focused primarily on a core group of black belts for a very long time.

Especially in Japan, it’s rare to really have an influx of adult students, so we want to make sure we take advantage of this opportunity. So of course, we’ve been thinking about all the basic things - the practice schedule, training routines, how we want to run each class to make it valuable to both old and new students - but it’s also had me thinking a lot about motivation.

In short, what does each student really want from Taido?

If Taido is addressing your true wants and needs, then you’ll commit to putting in the hard work during training. You’ll show up, even when you’re busy. You’ll stick around and improve. But if Taido isn’t meeting those deep motivations, you’ll find excuses to quit.

When people quit Taido, there’s a 99.99% chance they’ll say it’s because they’re “too busy.”

This is almost always a lie.

The truth is that everybody has their own unique reasons for starting. Those too, we tend to cover up with generalities and half-truths. The psychology behind it is interesting, but it’s not really the point. We say “I wanted to get some exercise,” or “I want to learn some basic self-defense,” or something else that’s equally vague, and most of these surface goals would be better met with something else anyway.

When I was seven, I started Taido, which at the time was indistinguishable from karate. There were a lot of reasons. I often say I started because I wanted to be like Daniel LaRusso in Karate Kid. But the real reasons were two:

  1. I wanted to be like my father, who was practicing other martial arts, and…

  2. I was small and the youngest kid in my class, and I didn’t wanna be picked on.

Taido never got me a girlfriend like it did Daniel. I never won the Valley All-Styles Tournament either :)

But I did get to spend a lot of time with my dad, because he joined Taido too. And as I practiced, I developed a lot of confidence in myself that I hadn’t had before (whether or not that was bred from genuine fighting ability is a topic for another time). Because those two boxes were checked off, I didn’t quit Taido like thousands of the other students I practiced with over the years, most of whom also saw Karate Kid.

So identifying the real reason a student begins Taido is extremely important if we want the to stay and be successful.

Unfortunately, it’s not something you can usually ask directly. Oftentimes, the student doesn’t really know precisely why; it’s just a feeling they have that they wanna do this. In Japan, it’s also a bit rude to ask direct, personal questions to people you don’t know well, even in the context of trying to help them. Martial arts are a traditional part of Japanese culture, so the idea of a bespoke student experience is pretty foreign; everybody has expectations of what the interaction is gonna be like, and you have to kind of color within those lines.

Still, I’m getting closer to their real motivations each practice. And if I can figure them out in time, I’ll be able to keep them in the dojo and teach them how to keep learning from Taido for a very long time.

Non-Martial Applications of Seigyo

Axioms of Taido

In Taido, seigyo refers to methods of controlling an opponent in order to protect ourselves (both the tai and men - body and mind/spirit). In short, defense.

When we thing of defense in martial arts, the obvious ideas are related to stopping an enemy attack. We practice blocks, parries, evasions, and counters to common offensive techniques. We work on our kamae to close any openings (suki). We train to move quickly and watch our opponents. Those are all excellent things, and Taido would not be effective as a martial art without those basics.

There are also more subtle elements of defense. Beyond the basic tactics, defensive strategy means understanding various concepts to help us not only avoid attacks but to preempt and prevent them before they begin.

In non-martial application, there are also both gross and subtle aspects to seigyo.

To define seigyo in social terms, we have to look at what kinds of opponents may challenge us and what sort of “attacks” we are likely to encounter. Literal opponents might be a rival at work or a group whose ideology threatens our safety or livelihood. Unantagonistic (or even unintentionally antagonistic) “opponents” might be a spouse, an employer, or any other person or business we interact with. If we can extend the definition beyond personification, our social structures and even our daily environments could be seen as opponents in that they affect our lives in pervasive and powerful ways.

Gross defenses might entail any number of tactics, but unlike defense against physical attacks, defense in society is seldom confined to a single event - a punch we can block. An “attack” against our bodies and minds in the real world is often a prolonged or ongoing interaction.

Imagine living near a factory. Everyday, you breathe the fumes. You hear the noise as part of your regular background. You share the roads with the trucks. The lights come in your windows at night. Each day, you’re exposed to stressors. The acute effects are subtle and prolonged, but over time, you may notice that you have difficulty breathing on especially humid days, feel greater stress than before, or have difficulty sleeping. You may slowly develop health problems brought on by environmental toxins. The factory is an opponent, and it’s attacking you daily, whether you realize it or not.

Exposure to a less-than-perfect environment is part of the social compact. Without retreating to hermitage, we can’t fully avoid or block the attacks of many of our social opponents. We can only recognize them and negotiate as effective a defense as circumstances allow.

A few specific actions that might be considered non-martial seigyo:

  • Wear comfortable shoes - Your shoes protect your feet, cushion your joints, and govern your gait, which in turn has important biomechanical effects throughout your body. Quality footwear can help ensure healthy movement patterns and structural balance.

  • Learn first aid - You can never know when you will need to care for an injury to yourself or to someone else. The basics of first aid can mean the difference between life or death, or between full recovery and disability.

  • Improve your balance - Your chances of twisting your ankle on a slippery sidewalk are thousands of times higher than your chances of being attacked by a mugger. Balance and agility will help you avoid injuries while navigating life.

  • Get insurance - In the US, most bankruptcies are due to debt from medical bills. The best defense it to be prepared with quality insurance that will cover those costs. In many countries, this isn’t something you need to worry about, but the same logic applies to things like making a will or preparing your family for what to do if you die. There’s no convenient time to do these things, but the worst time to have to think about them is when it’s already too late.

These aren’t the kinds of things we generally think of when we consider how to apply budo to modern life. That’s what makes them valuable. Martial art is about training ourselves to survive the unexpected as well as the expected. In combat, we can assume we’ll know our opponents and be vigilant to their attacks. In society, our opponents are rarely antagonistic, and their attacks are almost always subtle.

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