A few days ago I posted “A martial-arts trilemma” about Cathy’s and my search for a new school to train with following the demise of our MMA program. We’ve since gotten one nice surprise and struck two alternatives off our list. And thereby hangs a tale.
Tonight we went back to Iron Circle for a Tang Soo Do class. And, OK. the last 10 minutes of hapkido joint locks were interesting. But the previous 50…not good. We’d been prepared for the possibility that the Tang Soo Do techniques would be enough like our old times in TKD that they wouldn’t be very interesting to do again, but it was actually worse than that. Because we’ve changed. We discovered that the style of teaching they use chafes the hell out of us now.
What I’m talking about is the whole scene of unison drills, chanted responses, belts and uniforms, and heavy padding on people who can barely deliver any power. It all felt like going back to kindergarten. Stifling. Stupid. And they couldn’t fight – we had to just watch the sparring because we hadn’t brought the requisite silly amounts of padding with us, but: even though Cathy tends to be uncertain and self-deprecating about her fighting skills, she couldn’t help but notice that either of us would have gone through most of that crowd like a laser through candyfloss. The way she put it – quite well I thought – was that there wasn’t any intention in their fighting.
That lack, at least, I don’t consider the school’s fault. Master Maybroda is a very capable instructor and good with the kids, but the difference between people who’ve been training for twenty months and people like Cathy and myself who’ve been at it for twenty years is major and not easily bridged. We just don’t fit in a setting designed for beginners any more, and this class rubbed our noses in that fact pretty hard.
It didn’t help that the only actual challenge in the Tang Soo Do part of the class was purely physical, mainly the old familar problem that Eric can’t kick for shit because of the palsy. So I was both physically miserable and bored – worst possible combination. I handle physical challenge much better when my mind has something to chew on, but until the last bit of hapkido I wasn’t getting any of that.
I think Master Maybroda was reading my mind. He actually spent a couple minutes at the end of class explaining that there aren’t any pure hapkido schools in the U.S. because the training is physically punishing on the joints at a level Americans aren’t willing to handle. He didn’t add “And Eric, that’s why you can’t just do the bits I saw you come alive for” out loud, but I heard it plainly nevertheless.
Bummer. Scratch Iron Circle – we like the people, but we won’t go back to kindergarten for that.
But there has been good news. Checking out the Systema school turned out to be a big, big win. Instructor very good, and clearly happy to be teaching advanced students with a multi-style background. Class size all of three, so we got individual attention. And the techniques, fascinating.
Systema originated as a military form (the house style of Russian spec-ops troops) and mixes modern weapons with empty-hand. As an example, one of the drills was forward-rolling while maintaining control of a pistol (my rolling predictably sucked, but by Goddess I never lost full control of the weapon). Several of the others involved knife attacks or knife threats to a protectee.
One exercise I particularly enjoyed was this: slow-strike your partner to light contact, then do two more strikes without rechambering, for a continuous flow of three. Partner is to respond to the strike as if it were combat-speed, folding over on a gut punch and that sort of thing. Any hand or elbow strike allowed, no rules except don’t actually damage your partner, freeform variation in striking patterns not only permitted but encouraged. I collect exotic hand strikes because I think they’re fun, and I can meter the amount of power I deliver with my hands and arms very precisely – so this was great playtime for me.
Systema, I was told, does a lot of training at slow speed. Their theory is that if you can do it slow, fast is easy. And this certainly does seem to improve kinesthetic awareness; during the three-strikes drill I was aware of fine details of my striking motions that I would have missed at speed.
All in all, a very good experience. From reports, I had expected to find the style to my liking; the surprise was that Cathy really liked it. She was grinning ear-to-ear when we left.
Our search process is having an interesting effect on Cathy. I noted previously that she has tended to be uncertain and self-deprecating about her skills. But visiting different schools in an analytical frame of mind is teaching her important lessons about how very much she has actually learned. It’s an affirming experience to walk into a strange school, do a first class, and discover that you can do a good percentage of the techniques better than most of the established students – and it’s one Cathy has been having repeatedly over the last couple of weeks. She’s walking a little taller now, showing some pride that she has well earned. It’s a good thing to see.
I have reluctantly given up on the Shaolin studio in Berwyn. The style attracted me a lot, but I just can’t get past the fact that they don’t normally spar to contact. I’d love to study it with an all-adult class targeted more to experienced martial artists and with contact sparring and more emphasis on combat drills, but that’s not what I can get there. Cathy was never as excited by the whole Kwai-Chang Caine vibe as me, so it was less difficult for her to give this up.
So. Remaining in contention are Mr. Stuart’s and the Systema school. We’ve learned of a Northern Shaolin school about 20 minutes north of here and we’re going to investigate. If that turns out to be Shaolin for adults it too may be a serious contender.