Today’s Lesson: How to Find a Safe and Legit School/Teacher
Hello, and welcome to “Atma-Sensei’s School of Hard Knocks”, a series about martial arts, self defense, and the facts and myths surrounding them and their history. The history of martial arts is long and varied and can often times be confusing, no thanks in part to a lot of modern day misconceptions about it steeped in old Orientalism, racism, bad translations, and just plain ol’ academic stupidity. There’s a lot of quackery/woo in it, and part of my job as I climb the ladder towards becoming a sensei and owning my own dojo is helping people in this area, be it hands on training or just dispelling the bullshido. This has become my biggest passion in life, and I hope I can transfer some of my knowledge and energy onto anyone curious.
This is a very long post, so I recommend you get comfortable.
Today’s post is probably one of the most critical ones. I’ll level you with you right out the door: You can’t learn martial arts or self defense through the internet and/or books/videos only. Anyone offering this to you has forgotten the most critical aspect of all this is how physical this all is. Without a teacher to guide you safely, you risk damaging yourself far more than you would anyone attacking you. While you can get a sense of what it may entail and what you can expect out of a course, trying it on your own is not a wise idea, and you’re more likely to wind up in the ER than you are first place in a tournament or king of the alleyway. There’s many nuances to things like how to impact, how to take impact, what bones/parts of youd body can and cannot do so, what angles and areas to strike, how to adjust for height and weight, and so many other factors you just cannot prepare for without a safe environment and the right teacher for you. The internet and books/videos provide wonderful reference material if you are already also in instruction in a school/dojo, but if you don’t already have some semblance of knowing what you’re doing, it just doesn’t translate well.
You’re going to have to spend some time and money and energy on this. If you can accept this, you’re ready to start scouting for a school/teacher. If not, I’m afraid you’ll have to stick to stuff like mace, pepper spray, and whatever weaponry is legal for you to own in your state (this will all be a separate topic on its own eventually). Now, the good news is, there’s probably a lot of schools in your area! They’re not hard to find in most places nowadays. The bad news is that leaves us with burden of choice. The other bad news is about 90% to 95% of these schools are going to suck. A lot of the suck is going to come from schools that teach Tae Kwan Do, Karate, some Kung Fu, and Krav Maga. Save for Krav Maga, these styles aren’t inherently bad, they will just require a lot more effort to find a legitimized school in. They exist, but are few and far between.
Let’s rewind history a bit. After Japan lost WW2, a lot of dojos stopped training because the American forces occupying the country insisted they stay peaceful and anything seen as warmongering, including training in martial arts, was seen as anti-American, so it was banned. Karate comes from Okinawa, an island nation on Japan’s southern end, and a lot of soldiers were stationed there (and are today still). Those who trained did so in secret to keep the art alive. The soldiers did catch wind but instead of punishing them, they asked to be trained in it themselves. This lead to the American soldiers believing they were the bestest and biggest asskickers ever and would immediately start writing off on each others’ black belt rankings as bribes and gifts to each other as the years went on. They would then come home and open up a school and teach it poorly and claim supreme mastery at levels not even their own teachers had come close to touching. You can see how easy it would be to set up a bad school and pass it on poorly this way. A lot of Karate dojos now are like this.
Tae Kwan Do comes from Korea. After General Choi studied Karate in post-war Japan, he brought it back and reformed Korean martial arts with it and gave it this name, which translates to “Hand Foot Way” as Karate means “Empty Hands”. Due to anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea, their government decided to rewrite the history of their martial arts to go back thousands of years and not mention any influence from the Japanese. They then established schools all over the world, especilly America, to compete against Karate schools, and would have more lenient and faster requirements to get a black belt than Karate, so they could say they produce black belts at a higher and faster rate. This is a dangerous precedent to set, as now people see rank as equivalent to skill, which is not a safe way to assess someone’s true skill or talent at all. Unfortunately, many people believe it is, and see a black belt and assume you’re the best right away. Most Tae Kwan Do, especially in America, is associated with this, and a very very very hard art to find a legitimate school of that still dates back to Choi’s direct lineage. They exist, but are some of the hardest to find a legitimate school of.
Kung Fu is one of those styles that has so many sub schools and such and was some of the first and hardest and longest to be mythified by Westerners, meaning a lot of what we get is just downright play-acting crap. Again, legit schools exist. Hard to find, you guessed right.
Krav Maga and Ninjutsu will get their own takedowns further on in this article as to why you shouldn’t choose these, based on my own objective and subjective observations.
We call all of this in general “bullshido” which is a wonderful term to label the quackery that comes out of martial arts, a mixture of bullshit and bushido. Many people are masters of bullshido, either willingly as scam-artist scum, or unwillingly, as poorly trained students. We call their schools McDojos or Belt Mills. You know those commercials for for-profit colleges that churn out diplomas in stuff like “business management or accounting”? Think of these schools like you would them.
If you’re not dissuaded from finding a real school/teacher with this tall order, there are many ways to spot the bullshido from the real McCoy-San. Let’s run down a list of red flags that work for pretty much any style.
Some of these are adapted from archived versions of sites that no longer exist, but I remember them all like it was yesterday. I hope to preserve their spirit in warning others.
- Does the head instructor have self-awarded or untraceable black belt ranks? Do they seem awfully young to have such a high level of mastery? Do they claim to know a jillion other styles and are also of suspiciously high level in all of them? Do they claim to be a member of a martial arts orginization that’s not legit or is also untraceable? Remember thos esoldiers I mentioned handing each other diplomas like they were candy? Look at any friends/allied schools they have and see if it’s similar. Chances are they’re paying each other off, as is their “tradition”. Most martial arts that have “degrees” of black belts do not exceed a 10th rank, and most people are only awarded that posthumasly. Even 9th and 8th, sometimes 7th degrees are very hard to obtain without being a certain older age and level of experience, depending on the art. Be very cautious of how many they have and how many others they have in other arts; was it really plausaible for them to learn all this at their age? There’s no reason for you to belt it out with them.
-Is their lineage in how they studied, whom they studies under, when they did it, where, and what style traceable and correct? Is this information readily available and verifiable? A real instructor has nothing to hide, nor will claim their master is of unknowable name or location. Also watch out for shitlords who like to claim they’re ninjas or spies or assassins or special forces or all the above. If they sound like a bad Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler protagonist, you’re right to put the book down.
-How are you going to pay for this? If it’s by a long term contract that’s tied to a bank and/or hard to get out of, that’s a huge sign this person is most likely running a scam. You should be able to quit anytime for any reason and just walk out the door and not be expected to pay further than anything you just recently have. Also, how much are they charging? Price shopping is essential.
-Where’s your money going? Beyond tuition, it should be open as to where any more money goes, such as testing fees. Testing fees are common, and usually the money goes to ordering your new belt and any learning materials you may need, or to pay for the time of any other instructors who may need to be there, or for your main instructor’s time itself. It should only ever be enough to cover these costs. There should be no inflation between ranks. There should be no bullshido ranks of belt, such as rainbor or camoflague or paisley or flannel. Use your common sense on that one. If any other money is needed for any other thing, it should be very upfront about where it’s going, and it should be traceable and provable, such as any fundraising events you may attend or the school may be a part of. If it’s to order any equipment you may need, watch out for them saying you can only purchase from a particular brand or maker, as they could be getting kickbacks; equipment is a very personal thing as people move and are sized differently and they should be comfortable with what they’re wearing and using. For example, our school either lets you pick out of a few catalogues we have on hand you can order any of what you want/are looking for from and our sensei lets us use his discount with them, or he will offer you a range of websites that are notable for a quality selection you can browse at home and then pick anything you want from, and even letting you ask him if he thinks this would work for you before you purchase so you don’t wind up making a mistake and sitting on an unusable item. Our dojo is also a registered non-profit and gives back to the community often, keeping our tuition low but fair to us too, so we may welcome people from any walk of life and not just the rich, so we get a real sense of community. Be a smart investor.
-There should be no such thing as a “guaranteed” black belt, either by just having trained enough years, or by spending enough money, or anything. You should get it only when you have earned the right to it and pass a proper, thorough examination. Some people may train enough to only earn an honest one in a few years, some people may need a decade to. It isn’t a race; would you trust a doctor who got their degree in medicine just for showing up but not doing the work for a couple years to operate on you? If you can pay more to get their faster, that’s DEFINITELY a sign of some serious shit and I would doubt anyone in a school like that could kick anyone’s ass but their own, by falling on it after tripping trying to kick yours.
-Are classes for children or women only or based on conditioning and fundamentals actually focused on actual training and martial arts, or is it seen as just to be the “inspired by” workout you can see in Tae-Bo discount rack videos in Wal Marts everywhere in America? Are the classes for kids only nothing more than glorified babysitting? Are the skills and training you earn from those courses or workouts transferable to anything else you may study? If not, it may just be an easy way for your teacher to make more money.
-No, you’re not Goku, you can’t channel your chi/ki and blast someone, you can’t float, you can’t turn invisible, there’s one one-inch heart stopping death punch, swords can’t cut through tanks, and this isn’t guaranteed to get you laid. Come on, would you believe it if YOU said it? I thought so.
-Do they spar? Do they spar regularly? You can train on your own all you like, but without the proper feedback of actually getting in it with someone and feeling contact and getting used to the idea of fighting/combat, which you get from free sparring (which is fun as hell and you will enjoy it), you will never be able to get past the first punch in a real fight.
-When teaching self-defense seminars/classes that aren’t based on learning a full art/style but instead the fundamentals of personal safety, is it being sold on fear? Is it preying on women or minorities or such in easily shocking ways? Is it claiming a perfect solution? Is it encouraging you to be the aggressor at anytime and hit first? Are they claiming a rapist kidnapper mugger boogeyman is right in your area right now waiting to snatch your car radio, kids, your virginity, your wallet, and your life without any actual local incidents occuring? We advertise ours based on being prepared for life in general; not because you’re a weak lady whom gross men would looove to prey on or anything. They should use real statistics, real techniques, and teach you that your ultimate goal is to escape as soon as you can if at all possible, not stay there and “win”. You win when you live. Do not let them sell you anything based on shame.
-Are they aware of the state/local laws regarding what you can and cannot do in a fight/self defense and things like weapons laws or laws regarding items such as pepper spray or mace? Do they teach you how to comply with this or at least be aware of what you could get in trouble for if you decide to do it anyways (i.e. you had no other choice/life or death situations)? For example, in California, we cannot keep someone pinned down in an arrest position, as that’s a no-no with cops. We also cannot have nunchaku unless it’s at the dojo and only locked away in our trunk to and from class, often with our sensei’s business card with it so any authorities searching you can call him to verify you are a student and they are for your training.
-Finally, and most importantly, given recent world events and why I was asked to write this, is the dojo a welcoming environment to everyone from all walks of life? Is the instructor openly bigoted in any way, or is any student openly bigoted and not reprimended for it? Are women allowed to spar, are all races seen as equal, is any religion or creed allowed to train there, is any gender identity valid, and can gay/lesbian/bisexual people train without fear of being bullied or outed by others? In our school, the three topics you can never discuss within the dojo at any time are sports, religion, and politics. This helps for most, but those who are unsure should be able to tell the head instructor in private if they’d be welcome, and what the consequences for anyone else bullying you would be, if any? My teacher knows I’m a lesbian, and has told me that if anyone would dare pick on me for it, they are a fool for “picking on one of the strongest students I know” and “let me know who and what they did and when so I can work on expelling them”. He will not stand for an ounce of intolerance towards anyone in his walls, and it should be the same for you. It should be your safe home away from home. It should be a welcoming, fun atmosphere, even if the training and the lessons are serious, you should still at the end of the day feel like you’re safe and that you belong there, even if you go by a ridiculous nickname (which yes, you all will have at least a few, ones you give yourself and ones you earn. Ask me about being The Fishmonger sometime!) like I do and call yourself “Atma, the Weapon” sometimes.
On that note, I mentioned earlier to avoid pretty much any Krav Maga or Ninjutsu school. I have my reasons. If you decide you disagree and wish to seek those out anyways, just follow the guide above, but I would still recommend against it.
Krav Maga is something that combines a personal dislike/political issue I don’t agree with and it mixes it with a hearty dose of an unwillingness to spar (see above why that’s not a hot idea) and a tendency for its instructors to teach you its okay to be an aggressor rather than defending yourself and there have been lawsuits against instructors for people taught it who felt justified in hitting people just because they felt they could get away with it and claim they thought the person was suspicious after. If anything here is dishonorable, it’d be that.
Ninjutsu is, well, you’re gonna get the absolute most bullshido out of this one, bar none, especially that note about magic ki powers and invisibility and whatnot. You’re gonna get a great course on how to LARP a Naruto episode pretty great, but not much else. There was legitimate ninjutsu in the world in one school left in Japan, but the instructor recently retired and was not interested in naming a successor, as he felt it no longer had a valid place in the world, and that was his valid decision to make. It is now impossible to find legitimate ninjutsu in any part of the world.
This will be updated with styles to avoid as I think of it.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. You are now ready to go forth and find yourself something, even if it’s just a self defense course somewhere, or maybe you’ll find a martial art or two (or if you’re like me, all of them. Well, almost all of them.) that suits you real well. Even without the bullshido and McDojos, there’s a lot out there to experience, so take your time, and if something doesn’t suit you, there’s always more. You’re welcome in our dojo anytime, and you’re also welcome to leave anytime if you decide it’s just not for you. It happens. We’re all different.
But one thing is clear: We all deserve to be safe.