Five Letters Re: Selecting a Martial Art and a Dojo

Mr. Rawles:
Having done this (being involved in running a professional [martial arts] school) for ten years, and having studied twice that long, here’s my $1.83 (two cents, adjusted for inflation). First, what does your gut tell you about the place and the instructor? If you get an uneasy feeling, listen to it, and back off a bit. It may be that the guy exudes an Alpha-dominant energy, and that’s what’s making your hair stand on end. Then again, it might be your rip-off alert/ BS detector going off.

1) Take a couple of days to think it over, and:

2) Ask for references. Talk to students away from the school; talk to parents at the school. If this guy is any kind of sensei, sifu, professor, or whatever handle he hangs on himself, his students’ parents will overwhelm you (to the point your BS detector may begin giving false readings!). Kids in today’s world crave the structure that society used to provide as reinforcement for parental structure. Sadly, society today denigrates parents’ best efforts. Your children will thrive in a good school;

3) Does the school have a children’s program? Private instruction? Specialized classes? While the art of aido (drawing and striking with the Japanese sword) has a great esoteric appeal to me, it is not of any particular immediate value, as I rarely carry a katana with me. An HK USP, now that’s a little different story. This brings us to;

4) Does the school teach a rigid style, a system, a hodgepodge of many styles, or do they teach movement and the underlying principles contained therein? In other words, are they going to waste your time with a lot of semi-mystical crap about chi-force coming from your tantien, or do they explain that the power you gain comes from leverage generated by your strike aligning with your center of gravity, and timed with backing mass, body alignment, and relaxation/tensing at the time of impact. Again, do they deal with the esoteric historical context of the Far East, or the reality of the world and Newtonian Physics? (hint, folks: it’s all about leverage and timing).

5) Does the school teach self-defense? This may seem like a redundant question, but again, if you’re studying Japanese swordplay, you’d better be carrying a Japanese sword! Obvious, yes? Did you know that International Tae Kwon Do emphasizes, in fact encourages use of the most difficult technique in any given situation? That many “sport” karate schools teach students to break contact immediately after “scoring”? I have had personal experience with both. This is not how you learn to defend yourself, if that is your goal;

6) Be an informed consumer. This means a couple of things here: What do you want from the experience? We had a special class for home-school kids, and it became the nucleus of their social life (a lot more useful than dodgeball in the future, as well). Are you interested in learning to fight, to improve your reaction response, to get your butt back in shape with something a little more useful than step-aerobics? Or does the Eastern influence of many styles provide you with a new perspective on your world? When Bruce Lee talked of “style with no style” he wasn’t advocating an anything-goes attitude; rather that one should not be constrained by traditional techniques. “When one is bound by tradition, the one must serve it, when tradition is bound, then it is our servant”.

7) Does the system fit you, as it should, like a suit of clothes. Not only will different fashions look and fit differently on each individual, but also, the last time I looked, clothing, like people, came in different sizes and widths. I’m 6’/250 lbs…for me to try shaolin wu shu is almost a guaranteed trip to the emergency room…grappling, however… and,

8) If self defense is your pursuit, does the school teach a brad range of technique(notice, technique, as in broadly applied, NOT technique(s), as in a new one for every situation). Bruce Lee’s analogy to water was only partially complete: water, like motion, exists in a constant state of transition, from solid (ice, rigidly applying the same motion to whatever comes, whether appropriate or not, the beginner) to fluid (constantly seeking its own level,moving all things to that level, the intermediate student) to a gaseous state ( where it expands to its volume, true mastery of motion…the technique is formed by the attack). Don’t think this is important? I can almost hear the grapplers grumbling… Okay, you’ve just slipped behind your attacker, and nabbed him in a perfect naked choke…now what do you do about him comapdre who’s immediate plans are to stove in your head? You can only wrestle one guy at once, and all too often, bad people come in bunches…About martial arts, Zen, and bushido being antithetical to Christian views: Poppycock! Bushido, at its core, is founded in the ideal of devotion of one’s life, in every moment and every way to a set of values and principles, defined in the heart of each man. Zen is the pursuit of oneness with the Universe (i.e. God, the Divine and Benevolent Creator, and all His Creation). At its core, you’ll be learning to beat people up. In the process, hopefully, you’ll be learning about yourself. If that is part of the journey that doesn’t rest well with you, then maybe this path is not for you. I, however, rabidly endorse martial arts training for EVERYONE!!! By the way, I’m not in the business anymore, so I’m not trying to gin up customers.

One final thought on selecting a dojo, and probably the area of most dissatisfaction, ultimately: never forget when dealing with ANY school that you are in charge! You are the consumer,you are the customer! The school, and its instructors are making their living by providing a service to YOU!!! Be clear on this. You do not have the right to dictate what the school will teach (unless you’re running it) but you do have a right to be told, in clear and certain terms, what is expected of you, and what the organization you’re dealing with will deliver. Assert you rights as an informed buyer, and don’t go in for that Shiloh/ servant manure manifestation. This is the 21st Century America, not feudal China or Japan.

Study that which is practical, but remember not all things fit. as Niestchze once observed “If the your only tool is a hammer, you must treat all problems as nails”. Techniques are either useful (fit the situation at hand), not useful (fit, but not necessarily THIS situation), and useless(or, you’ve got to be kidding!?! I paid you to show me this?!?). More than whatever you study, you MUST practice until you reaction comes without conscious thought involved. Therefore, find something useful to practice, as practice DOES NOT make perfect; it only makes PERMANENT what is practiced. Study hard, learn well, live long, and keep The Faith.

OBTW, Teddy Roosevelt practiced jujitsu in the White House, moving furniture from the Main Floor Living Room, and installing mats! Bully! Regards, – Bonehead


Hi Jim!
My name is Frank, I’m an Aussie guy living up in Queensland, a survivalist and a Christian by belief in Jesus. As a regular reader of your blog I came across the recent post “Eight Letters Re: Selecting a Martial Art and a Dojo”. I was surprised to see the lack of mention about karate and the fact that its only mention was in reference to it being a “hard” martial art, with the inference that a law abiding Christian should perhaps not pursue such a path. I have studied karate for some years now and it is definitely a decisive and effective form of self defense, but one that most all of its practitioners rarely if ever use outside of the dojo. The reason for this I learned is that training in traditional karate gives a person an ‘air’ of capability that is obvious to the average punter in the street and tells them in no uncertain terms to “look for a softer target… or else”

I know this sounds arrogant, but it’s true, and I have met many practitioners of the ‘soft’ arts and they just don’t seem to carry this tangible warning around with them. They will allow total strangers to stand close, “in the danger zone” and rarely seem to be aware of who and what is going on around them. These are the basics of karate training. Personal protection through awareness and keeping threats at a manageable distance. To me self-defense should not rely fancy wrist locks or nifty grappling techniques, although I have learned these. Because the reality is that once an attacker has you in their reach, or the ground, you are in real danger of getting your eye poked out or your spine kicked in. Karate works well because it works at a distance and relies on speed and precision of attack, and believe it or not, a great deal of training is devoted to “getting out of harms way”, to avoiding an attack by retreating. But if attacking is unavoidable, a quick fist into someone’s nose or a kick to their groin will knock them off balance for several seconds and allow you to get away from a dangerous situation. This is all that matters, avoiding a dangerous situation.

I believe Karate has been downplayed over the last decade due to the perceived fashionably of the myriad of other arts. This and the fact that we modern western people have grown lazy. Karate training is very demanding physically and injury, though usually minor, is unavoidable. But that is the world we now face, a world full or stress and danger. I see karate fighting as an invaluable tool to carry with me through life, to protect myself and my loved ones. Violent, aggressive, yes! But thoroughly decisive against one or several unskilled attackers. Best wishes and I’ll see you when were together with the Lord. – Frank H.


Dear Jim:
I trained with a school that had a traditional martial arts progression, but more importantly, also did PRACTICAL self defense. It became very obvious after a couple of years of training that much of the martial “art” or “sport” was not directly relevant to surviving on the street. High kicks, spinning movements, complicated katas and the like, all look impressive, but have little practical value in street clothing, on uneven ground, against a surprise attack – you shouldn’t be spending valuable time on these unless you are so wealthy you don’t have a day job.
If it isn’t something you can see yourself using right away after you learn it, it’s probably too complicated to work on the street without years of training to ingrain your muscle memory. The real litmus test is whether you learn SIMPLE gross motor movements that you can duplicate without very much training, and under extreme stress.
If they teach elbows, knees, eye gouging (and biting when appropriate) in the introductory class, then you know you have a good school! Even better – do you get to practice all the skills, half speed, Force on Force with a well-padded instructor? (Yes, even the eye gouging on a fully visored instructor, but not the biting!) Ground fighting is critical too, if that is ignored, you do not have a complete training regimen.
The best proponent that I know of this practically-oriented philosophy is Tony Blauer who has refined it to a high level.
I have taken just a short seminar with him – very impressive. Jump on it if you get the chance.
Perhaps even more important for gun carriers, is integrating hand to hand techniques with drawing, moving and shooting skills, and/or knife or pepper spray,
You may not have much luck finding a practical school out in the boonies, but for those in larger metros you can find a few truly practical schools, in a sea of traditional martial artists. Regards, – OSOM


I was thinking further on martial arts and believe it is possible and indeed preferred to incorporate shooting survival skills into your martial arts regime. Progressively more difficult skills could be added, as you become more proficient in your studies:
Consider the use of martial stances in firearms training. The “Horse Stance” taught by many arts is very similar to the FBI “Combat Crouch” and the modified “T-stance” is a strong or weak side forward stance, which could be combined with a two hand Weaver grip to make a very stable shooting platform. Ritual katas, or a predefined set of martial arts movements -which helps improve technique and body awareness can be combined with pistol draw, tap and rack drills or rifle to pistol transition practice. Rondori or sparring “free practice” could be combined with weapons draw, disarm or weapons retention drills. Muzzle awareness should be stressed. [Solid plastic training] Red guns could be used due to safety concerns. Advanced students could “ratchet up” their stress training, by substituting soft pellet or paint ball guns (with face masks or goggles) into their firearms drawing or retention drills. – Terry in the Northwest.


Dear Jim,
Jiu Jitsu and other grappling arts are an excellent choice for defense and fitness. As noted author Steven Barnes (who is belted in multiple forms) told me, one can grapple in training repeatedly, but it takes only a few blows before practice must stop to prevent injury.
I have found the Kung Fus to offer an excellent balance of striking and grappling. While much of the mystique is no longer relevant, there are certain mindsets and processes that do go along with a school of training. A lot of the newer forms are simply refined and more limited derivations of earlier styles (Such as Kung Fu). Why limit oneself to part of an art?
Quite a few schools have oriented their philosophies more in line with the West, and incorporated Christianity into the structure. While not Christian myself, I approve of this because it makes the arts more accessible to Western mindsets, and still provides a necessary guiding philosophy (necessary when we’re discussing the ethics of potentially maiming opponents).
I studied for several years Song’s Kung Fu, and can recommend it to anyone in the Illinois area. Master Song is one of the most competent yet truly modest men I’ve ever met, and provides an excellent program with good explanations of the principles. His teaching is aimed at defense rather than sport, and in fact, advanced students wishing to compete have to take an extra course to learn competition rules to avoid disqualification or injuring opponents.
Generally, Tae Kwon Do in the US is taught as a sport. There’s nothing inherently wrong with learning it, as it will improve fitness and teach good balance, etc, but it will be of much less effect in a no-rules brawl.
I agree with others who have said that a few good moves well rehearsed are adequate for most circumstances. To that end, the Marine Corps manual on combatives is excellent, covering a handful of grapples, strikes (including common military weapons such as knives, sticks, shovels and helmets) that can be learned quickly and studied in short time each day. It’s practical and concise. Also, the Marines now have a dedicated martial art they are teaching. I haven’t seen a lot of it, but I assume it will run on the same practical principles.
If one can find a school that doesn’t over-stress the mysticism, Indonesian Pentjak Silat and similar forms are absolutely brutal and designed for multiple opponents. There isn’t much in the way of restraint or low-end force; these are styles to kill with. The disadvantage is that they are predicated on having all four limbs functional. The Kung Fus are adaptable for temporary or permanent disability including wheel chairs.
It is a combination of these two forms (Silat and Shaolin Kung Fu) the Freehold forces use in my novels.
One of the best hand to hand weapons to learn is short staff/cane, as it’s societally acceptable for almost anyone to carry a walking stick. A stout piece of rattan (light) or cocobolo or maple (heavy) is a devastating weapon in the hands of someone determined to use it and with some basic training in checks, blocks, hooks and strikes. Since I occasionally need a stick for support anyway, I practice regularly with one. Worst case, stick like things are very common either lying outside (“sticks”) or in most buildings (brooms, handles, etc) and readily obtainable. Actual walking sticks run from $5 rattan at Farm and Fleet stores to pricier carbon fiber or fiberglass sticks with metal heads from Cold Steel. – Michael Z. Williamson