Shopping for a martial-arts school: the adventure continues

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.

21 thoughts on “Shopping for a martial-arts school: the adventure continues

  1. Eric and I pretty much agree on the above, except that at this point, I’m thinking it’ll be more like we’ll do Mr. Stuart’s *and* the Systema school. The Systema school is basically a one-man operation; he loves the art, but he recently lost his day job as a pharmacist, is working a part-time gig over the weekends to make ends meet, and can only teach Systema on Tuesday nights.

    Half of my Tuesday nights are subscribed to Malvern Borough Council meetings.

    But that might be okay. The Systema teacher charges by the class. The Haganah F.I.G.H.T. program Mr. Stuart runs has class on Monday and Wednesday nights. We could do Haganah F.I.G.H.T. as our regular training, and head out for the Systema place once or twice a month or when we can.

    Unless the other Shaolin dojo really impresses both of us, of course.

  2. My own update: I’ve checked out two schools: the Krav Maga school that I mentioned in a previous thread, and also a Wing Chun school in Chinatown. Going with Krav was an easy call. The place passed your test criteria with flying colors; the Wing Chun school, not so much.

    I hope you pick Mr. Stuart’s so that we can compare notes at the next Penguicon :-).

  3. >The place passed your test criteria with flying colors

    I would be quite surprised to learn of any Krav Maga school that did not. Well, I suppose it could fail by having incompetent instructors, but it would be surprising if any variant of the style didn’t have what I think of as the right characteristics.

  4. >I hope you pick Mr. Stuart’s so that we can compare notes at the next Penguicon :-)

    As Cathy noted, this seems quite likely unless the Northern Shaolin place really surprises us.

  5. The only gotcha I se is the Systema school’s size of three: if you commit to it, will you be back int he same place you are now at some point because the other student dropped out?

  6. >The only gotcha I se is the Systema school’s size of three: if you commit to it, will you be back int he same place you are now at some point because the other student dropped out?

    It’s possible. But we know this guy has been running with a class size of one for a while. so clearly his notion of an acceptable minimum is less than three.

  7. >The place passed your test criteria with flying colors

    I would be quite surprised to learn of any Krav Maga school that did not. Well, I suppose it could fail by having incompetent instructors, but it would be surprising if any variant of the style didn’t have what I think of as the right characteristics.

    I can imagine, at least in principle, a Krav school failing the same way the Wing Chun school did: lack of student discipline and instructors unwilling to enforce it. What I saw there a bunch of college-aged kids who were there to blow off steam in the ring rather than to learn anything, and a Sifu willing to give them what they wanted. He would have them spend a few months learning basic kata, and then toss them in the ring and let them fend for themselves with minimal further instruction. Seeing that the Sifu had a beer belly also rubbed me the wrong way.

  8. Is there some way you could help out the Systema guy? Get him hooked up with Mr. Stuart’s, possibly using/renting/sharing practice space, which might also net/allow him more students and thus be able to justify focusing more of his time on it? (which would be to your benefit, right?)

    Just a thought – there’s clearly more variables and unknowns in this than are worth communicating to an uninvolved 3rd party located halfway across the country (me), so feel free to ignore it.

  9. >Is there some way you could help out the Systema guy?

    I’m already attempting it, but the details won’t be interesting to third parties unless I succeed. And possibly not then :-).

  10. If you are doing multiple things, would be worth looking at the local SCA to see if they have a fighter practice? I don’t know how much experience you have with the SCA version of combat, but it can be fun.

  11. >I don’t know how much experience you have with the SCA version of combat, but it can be fun.

    I know. I fought in hardsuit at Pennsic one year. But I prefer the sword style I’m doing now for a number of reasons; one is that I think it has more crossover into improvised weapons and real-world self-defense.

  12. I’ve just this evening done my first Gracie Barra Brazilian Ju-Jitsu class. I’m been doing almost exclusively Tai Chi (mostly Chen style) for the last decade, with various little bits of all sorts before and during that time (Mushindo Kempo, MMA locks and holds, Escrima, Yi Chuan, Bagua).

    The BJJ is good, and interesting. Very different from anything I’ve done before. It’s got a similar gritty ‘real’ feeling to that of Escrima – It’s not far from it’s roots as a brutally expedient fighting art. It’s full contact. It’s extremely physically demanding (mostly of strength and cardio fittness, but flexibility is also an important asset). So far it’s mostly trained at full speed, but it nonetheless has a good mix of fast and slow. It’s almost all ground work (they call sparring ‘having a roll’). It doesn’t look acrobatic at all (it’s extremely un-showy) but I expect it to _feel_ acrobatic, with its tight rolls and twists, once I get more practised.

    The club has a good atmosphere (Gracie Barra Southampton, UK), with everyone friendly and informally polite. It’s the most extreme combination of informality and discipline that I’ve come across. In my experience they are seldom found together both in high degree. There was no idle chit-chat during class, everyone paid close attention to the instructor, and exerted themselves fully and strongly in the training.

    Sparring is full strength, to submission (or unconsciousness). It’s done without protection, and still fairly safe even with barely diluted techniques because the attacks do damage by overextending or crushing, which are much more gradual than striking, and by all appearances even beginners can stop before causing (non-trivial) injury.

    I’m having to re-calibrate my etiquette for partner-work: In Tai Chi many applications are preposterous to a serious multi-style martial artist, and even when sound in theory are only done to the lightest touch. When you’re dealing with people who have been training for maximum sensitivity for 10-50 years, the lightest touch is very light indeed. In BJJ, hard enough is when your partner gives up because they know that fighting on would near-inevitably result in their unconsciousness or serious injury (broken limb, etc), or they give up, or actually fall unconscious.

    I attempted to make that mental shift before the class began. During the first exercise I tapped out and my parter gave me a confused look. “I haven’t started yet.” he said. By half way through the class I was slipping into the right sort of mindset, and while still usually at the mercy of the other students was starting to make the techniques work for me. I was the only totally beginner there, but I had a good time, felt I’d had a very good workout and learned a worthwhile amount by the end, and my instructor expects me to pick up the basic toolkit pretty quickly.

    I intend to give this a few weeks at a minimum, probably a few months, and then asses if it’s going to be a long term part of my life.

  13. >[BJJ is] not far from it’s roots as a brutally expedient fighting art

    That is true, but with one very important qualification. BJJ is well optimized for one-on-one combat in a situation where you don’t have to worry about anything in the tactical environment other than the guy you’re fighting. You can land in terminal shit, though, if you overcommit to one opponent when there are multiple assailants. Going to ground to submit the guy who jumped you is all well and good until his buddy clocks you with a tire iron because you weren’t maintaining 360 awareness and were too involved to dodge.

  14. 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.

    Over the last several days, while I was occupied with other matters, I have thought about something from time to time and was hoping for an opportunity to share it. I will use the quote above as my opportunity…

    In an earlier comment in an earlier post, I said that with the strongest tool in my tool box is my ability to peacefully show no fear. Punks just don’t like it.

    I was remembering Kwai-Chang Caine, and, as I recall, that was his big number as well. In the show, he spent a lot more time peacefully showing no fear than he did physically doing kung fu.

  15. The beauty of peacefully showing no fear is that it can work against people that are actually much better better fighters than me, or, in Kwai-Chang Caine’s case, someone with an “Equalizer” – the most popular personal weapon in the West – a single-action Colt .45 revolver.

    When facing some guy that obviously has the upper hand, and I am so relaxed that my muscles feel like bags of water… it just makes the guy nervous, like… he must be missing something.

    This applies to punks and bullies… with monsters and goblins, not so much.

    The best way to avoid losing a fight is to avoid the fight.

  16. Eric,

    No disrespect to Mr. Maybroda, but I knew that if you couldn’t get into a Hapkido-focused class, you wouldn’t enjoy the TSD. I doubt I will ever take any more traditional, work in unision, answer loudly sort of classes again. I have nothing against them, but see myself getting much more out of small class, real world simulation. That could change again for me someday – I’m open to the possibilities of things working out differently than I imagine( also, I’ve just watched Ip Man and Ip Man 2 on Netflix, so Wing Chun just looks super fun to learn — and I will definitely need one of those wooden dummies…)

    I have to admit, having done that sort of thing in the past and believing that I did it fairly well, it hurts me to see some of those classes. I have to will myself not to look at them sometimes, because I don’t want to be derisive. I took a lot of pride in forms and as for sparring, my old TKD uniforms had blood stains that I could never get out – partly because we sparred like we meant it. We were controlled, but….assertive in our contact.

    I wish you the best of luck with Mr. Stuart and/or Systema!

  17. >BJJ is well optimized for one-on-one combat in a situation where you don’t have to worry about anything in the tactical environment other than the guy you’re fighting. You can land in terminal shit, though

    Yep. My guard is pretty decent, but not if the other guy has a knife. I could probably catch a single person pretty quickly with a nice choke or arm break, but “quickly” matters in context. Before he could hurt me? – sure, if he wasn’t armed in some way I didn’t notice. Before his friend could kick me silly? – probably not.

    I do, of course, realize that self defense BJJ isn’t really done from the guard. Still, it’s optimized for unarmed combat against one other person.

    However, for me, this is awesome rather than a big letdown. I have had lots of street-practical training and will likely do more. However, practicing the sport aspect of BJJ lets me test myself against another well-trained guy in a more fun, less damaging way than some others and I fully expect to enjoy this for the rest of my life. I also have the opportunity to test myself against…myself — whether I can keep calm as a submission gets close, how to keep going when I’m exhausted, how well I have internalized the necessary body mechanics, etc.

    I’ve had nights when I felt very good about my game and others when I was very disappointed in myself. The key here, though, is that is matters to me. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of BJJ, but it also keeps me emotionally involved in my own progress and learning.

    I don’t kid myself about the limitations of BJJ in a survival scenario, but I still dig it!

  18. @ Wineslayer

    I’ve just watched Ip Man and Ip Man 2 on Netflix, so Wing Chun just looks super fun to learn — and I will definitely need one of those wooden dummies…

    I find it interesting that you thought that Wing Chun looks “super fun to learn” – it is! But from the spectator’s point of view, Wing Chun can sort of look like… not really a martial art at all – it’s so… simple. But it just, plain works.

    I strongly endorse the “Traditional” Wing Chun of the (Y)ip Man branch. (Yip man was Bruce Lee’s Master and my Master’s Master.)

    In my school, except for the highest level, there was no way to tell what level a person had attained. (Interestingly, of all the unusual things about Wing Chun that you can tell a Karate guy, this is the one they find most surprising – going to Karate class is all about who out-ranks whom.)

    (I haven’t actually been a member of the school for years, but I was practising and fooling around with techniques yesterday and I just got out of the shower today.)

    In a skills class, after a brief stretch and warm-up, the class would usually be divided into 2 or 3 groups based on level. In each group, a senior would demonstrate a technique and the group would break up into pairs/triplets to work on it while the senior circulated around, helping anyone/group that needed it. Once everyone basically had that down, the senior would often demonstrate one to three variations on the technique (he would do them several times so people could see it from different directions) then back to working with your pair/triplet. Sometimes near the end, there would be another, different technique demonstrated and worked on. It was a great way of learning.

    Often, I only sort of knew the basic aspects of a technique, but later that evening, at home, I would work on it and all of a sudden it would just click – I could tell I had it because it would just work – and it did when I used it in a susequent class.

    Wing Chun is about self defence, not combat. In class, there would be points at which each person defended against one or more opponents multiple times from all the other students. But the sparring was no contact (except for the attacker raising a palm near his face for the defender to do the chain-of-punches that ended many of the techniques – this was light contact, so students learned punching distance). Your basic regular free sparring was also zero contact and an optional part of training of little importance. Wing Chun is not about fighting – it is about hurting people that try to hurt you.

    Wing Chun really can be a blast to learn. Doing “sticky hands” (sensitivity training) back and forth with you eyes closed, seemingly feeling every joint in your opponent’s body if you had just hand/wrist contact, is so mellow…. Another thing that is great is defence-starting-from-a-grab sparring blind folded! (A student might two or three months after starting – it is a fast-start-up art).

    OK – more than enough – I hope you get as much out of it as I did – it changed my life, my whole way of feeling about myself.

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