Tuesday, July 10, 2007

How to learn without a teacher

My students and I are, as far as I know, the only aikido presence in Southwest Mississippi. There is a decent judo presence nearby, and a beginning wrestling presence, as well as a TON of isshinryu karate-do. But sometimes folks have an interest in an aspect of martial arts and their situation is not favorable to taking classes from a good instructor. For instance, what if you develop an interest in taiji or kendo, but live somewhere like Southwest Mississippi, where there is no presence in these arts. Or, what if you develop an interest in historical European fighting methods and can’t get good instruction nearby? What do you do? How do you reconstruct a martial art from minimal historical resources?
Here are some hints and guidelines that I personally try to follow when I am trying to expand my knowledge base beyond the areas for which I can conveniently find a live instructor:
  • Safety takes priority over effectiveness, which must come before efficiency
  • You should have a prolonged basis of experience in some system under a live instructor. Don’t go playing with a martial art with no experience and no instructor.
  • Find sources with the most informational content: video is better than picture/text/audio. More video=more information. Video on all of a system is better than fideo on selected parts. Multiple varying sources are better than one source from one faction.
  • Find sources as close as possible to the original - primary sources better than secondary sources
  • Consider remotely related info. For instance, you can get some idea about how kendo might work by studying Philippino or European martial arts.
  • A source must be internally consistent – it can’t blatantly contradict itself. If you find information that says the Musashi lived in the 16th century and that he fought in 14th century battles, doubt the source.
  • A source should be consistent with (or complementary to) your existent base of knowledge.
  • A source should be consistent with what you know of physics and the way the real world works.
  • If you think a source is inconsistent but can’t prove it, give it the benefit of the doubt.
  • Try to get info on both theory and application. Was it ever used in battle? Tested in sport?
  • Frame your research as a 'study group' instead of a 'class'. You probably don’t want to get students to pay you to teach them something you don’t know, but it should be pretty easy to find 1-2 buddies who will play with something with you.
  • Make sure your ideas are falsifiable and testable. You must have a randori/sparring/shiai system and a test-cutting/makiwara/pell system.
  • Document everything, including your starting assumptions and results.

These are pretty basic guidelines for re-creating an art that you don't have access to. Your end result may not look much like the original. You will, in essence be building your own art from the ground up, based on the sources you can find and your own research and experimentation, but the process will be educational and so long as you have some objective link to reality (randori), you should come up with a system with some validity.


  1. Some good points, I think.
    I would add another: consider taking your vacation in a place where you can find good instruction. Perhaps in your country. Perhaps in Taiwan, China or Japan. Even a few weeks with a real master would give a ready student a lot to work on.

  2. Very good addition. It is very important to have someone who knows what's going on that will coach you through the pitfalls. I was going for some guidelines for the dry times when you absolutely can't get your hands on a master.

    Thanks for the suggestion. Keep them coming!


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