By Aris Pitas, AKBAN Itten Dojo, Greece
I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but the world took a sharp turn for the dystopian. Governments declare states of emergency across the globe, people are dying left and right, and the media – true to their prime directive – stoke fear with warlike talk against an enemy we cannot see, but whose power we most definitely feel.
Covid-19 is just a name – a symptom if you will – of a problem much deeper and much more endemic to the lives we’ve chosen. This enemy, measured in micrometers, was foreseen, warned against, and thoroughly ignored until it was too late. There are many “enemies” following it closely (some preceding it too), and they are way nastier. Authoritarian states. Economic recession. Environmental collapse.
And the big question looms: Why the hell do we train amidst all this chaos? Does it even make sense? Isn’t it just …futile?
Yeah, it is. And training is still not an option.
Life has always been about fighting. Not the military kind, the one that’s good, bloody, self-destructive business. The other kind; the one that makes me get out of bed to face a universe that couldn’t give two shits about my troubles, without any meaning aside for the one I create for myself. You might disagree, but it’s all good. All opinions end in silence, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy a good fight. Bleak, perhaps, but martial arts are not among the fine arts. We study violence and conflict, but trust me – it’s deeply spiritual. Visceral, yes, but spiritual. Life-asserting actually, one punch at a time.
I don’t know why any student of mine trains. Don’t get me wrong; I’m curious, but ultimately, it’s not my burden to know the reason. It took me over a decade to find out why I train (it’s because I define my self-worth by my ability to withstand hardship – and fear). Some train to feel powerful, some to protect themselves, some to pick up girls (or boys) at the beach because, hey, ninjas are cool. “Why” is not important. Training is. You come in, do the work, shed the sweat, get punched, kicked, thrown, choked, share a few laughs, and come back for more – until you don’t. A perfect theater of the human condition, if you ask me.
There lies the “deeper meaning” of martial arts. Not meditating on a mountain until your teeth fall off, not chanting mantras, making mudras, drawing mandalas, but grappling with Death, in a macabre simulation, three times a week, every week. What did you think it means when you tap? You’re dead. Or you would be if you weren’t just playing with your training buddies. Sometimes you have their life in your hands, sometimes they have yours. Full circle. There is a simple beauty to this, different from that of a painting, but no less true. We are all in this together, and our lives depend on one another.
Tell me of one other human enterprise where you get to learn that so clearly. The lessons of the body cannot be denied.
That’s what martial arts are all about. To play with mortality, grapple with fragility, mock death, and have a good time. To possess that fabled, sparkling jewel of being human – the fighting spirit. Same as our ancestors when they scratched their way across frozen tundras, stalked by beasts, and lashed by the elements. If you think we’re past that as a species, I’d say you’re about to get a crash course on the symbolic structure of reality. Our tundras are concrete, the beasts wear suits, and the elements (*cough* climate change *cough*) are about to get a whole lot angrier with the tricks we’ve been pulling post-industrialization.
Martial arts are futile, and so is everything else. That’s the nature of our being; fragile, ephemeral, mortal. We cannot win, and it doesn’t matter. But we can fight. It’s great fun. To be human is to fight. You make great friends and great enemies too. In the end, we’re all invited for dinner. What else are you going to do? Go train.
Yossi Sheriff, April 3 2020
Following the social phenomenon that occurs because of the Covid-19 virus I briefly outline a few trends that I expect to occur:
The amateurs return, for better or worse
Inside a personal room and the internet it’s easy to create an imaginary world that has never been tested against both colleagues and opponents. But, what determines the next era is the ability to communicate online. This is not ideal, this is already the case and it will only get worse.
The Takeaway: Do learn to communicate online but do not be a amateur.
Some martial arts will lose students
Martial arts that emphasis close body contact will lose students. In the post-Corona world, despite the desire for human touch and physical embrace, the risk of close breathing and bodily fluids will be reserved for those who ignore risks.
The Takeaway: If you are centred in a Grappling, diversify.
Other martial arts will gain students
Martial arts that can build or have a syllabus of contactless training will be more popular – see section 2. In times of uncertainty many want and need to learn martial arts, the question is which ones. Defensive abilities give us a better quality of life because the fear of the other becomes an emotion in control. I expect a rise in historical weapons, karate, kung fu, and some forms of ninjutsu.
The Takeaway: Change syllabus to adapt to post pandemic world. Use the Methodical Pyramid.
The intimate session is back
AKBAN’s teachers, and myself, usually teach a few dozen students. It’s intimate and allows a reasonable number of students to Zoom learn. Seminars abroad with the physical presence of tens and hundreds of attendees will have to wait a long time to resume.
The Takeaway: Intimacy and closeness can be discovered in a large group and an online class. It takes sensitivity and work.
Streaming is not just for the experts
Any teacher who wants to teach now must learn how to overcome the technological hurdles and learn well how to stream. This is the situation.
The Takeaway: Control the technology or be its pawn.
Streaming will build a deep student audience
The human ability to communicate will bypass the limit of presence in the same room. Students who study in streaming can go deeper in some places than students who attend.
The Takeaway: The urban, easy access dojo is relatively new, many more models of learning used to exist. Embrace change with an easy heart, this is a challenge.
Streaming needs to evolve
Streaming needs to go beyond the basic video – we’ll find ways to teach better with streaming, methods we don’t know at the moment, from cellular reminders to specific merchandise for training – I’m waiting for our human creativity here.
The Takeaway: Do not wait on the sidelines for the technology to evolve. Play with it, learn and maybe, contribute.
Not everyone will survive professionally
Not all teachers, not all organizations will survive the crisis – a strong community is just as important as a fighting spirit. There will still be times when one of us will feel down. A strong and close community is key. A spiritually and physically strong community is the most important help now. Writing this Again: Community (Friendship, Humanity, Participation, Patience, Tolerance, Openness).
The Takeaway: Give more than you receive.
Those who survive the crisis will flourish
Martial arts, no matter which ones, show ability. Those who will show ability in crisis (clarity, speed, generosity, fighting spirit, emotional balance) will reap the reward afterwards.
The Takeaway: Frown strong. Breath deep.
More students, more things, more money – that belongs to previous era. This is changing to better students and less things (but good and useful).
The Takeaway: An axe never runs out of batteries. Five good students are better than fifty mediocre ones.
The local will replace the international. Online will replace the physical. Good or not good, it’s no longer to us to decide. It is what it is.
Some will naturally freeze and hesitate, others will deny and go to escapism and nostalgia.That is not the best reaction. We need to put our natural emotions in check.
The Takeaway: Stop, asses the situation and then start doing.
The Individual and telling a story
An academy, like AKBAN, is more than the sum of its parts, it exists in each individual. Each of the teachers and practitioners should be strong to hold both the practice and the knowledge. In this multiple task scenario on multiple platforms it is easy to loose yourself.
The Takeaway: Learn how not to dilute the personal story when telling it to others.