Via Potentia ~ Modern Self Defense Training

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Choosing a Martial Art

Why do you want to do this?

Different people have different reasons for considering martial arts:

It is critical to honestly determine why you want to participate in martial arts in the first place. Otherwise, you may just end up in a program that isn't really right for you and what you want.

The Short Answer

People always want to know which martial art is "best." Sorry, but there isn't a best one; in fact, if someone is claiming otherwise, then his style is probably a good one to avoid. There are some that are better at teaching certain things, and there are certainly better and worse instructors. But depending on your abilities and interests, there may be a system that is best for you. Each program focuses on something in particular; ITF Tae Kwon Do on forms, WTF Tae Kwon Do on contact sparring, Brazilian Jujitsu on grappling, Kali on stick and knife fighting, etc. Some have a broad scope like Hwa Rang Do and various Kung Fu schools, while others are narrow and focused like Kendo.

In Via Potentia we place roughly equal emphasis on physical conditioning and developing self defense skills during the first year; in later years we add competitive/sport/demonstration skills. Our reasoning is that, in an actual physical conflict (assault), the victor is usually the one who inflicts the first serious, disabling injury. This usually means striking the groin, eyes, neck, knees, or similar vulnerable target. If you want to improve your physical condition and train for raw self defense, then Via Potentia is a good choice. In fact, any program of instruction that increases your ability to rapidly cause such an injury to someone else will be effective for self defense. However, some programs never teach these skills.

That being said, the first step is to recognize that the term "martial art" (along with karate and even taekwondo) is often used generically and ambiguously. There are actually about six different general classifications of fighting programs, each with subdivisions. It is important to choose the kind of program that meets your personal goals:

Let us briefly review these one at a time.

Combat Training or "combatives" is the training that soldiers and militia/mercenaries receive for the purpose of destroying a militarized opponent in battle. It involves tactics, structure, weapons use, and a number of other facets. It is straightforward and brutal. Some styles go beyond military-to-military conflict and include (slightly) less aggressive and unarmed techniques for dealing with civilians without killing them outright. Many martial arts talk about becoming "warriors." That term really only applies to special forces soldiers and the like.

Martial Arts vary from philosophical and internal to practical and external. Some utilize weapons -- sometimes a single weapon. Others do not. They may be vast and comprehensive, or focus on a very narrow set of techniques. Most have a hierarchy, rules of self discipline and respect, uniforms, and the like. Lower ranks are expected to obey and demonstrate submission to higher ranks. Philosophical arts appear to be the genesis for the others, used forms and meditation as the primary methods of teaching and expressing metaphysical beliefs (usually dualistic), and are rarely found today. Even their modern expressions like Aikido and Tai Chi are relative novelties. Later martial arts, almost all of which originate in the last century, derive many of their techniques from the philosophical arts. Techniques are taught primarily with respect to their appearance (precision) more than their practicality or application to modern realities. Martial arts often include a strong cultural and philosophical perspective from their place of origin, and show reverence for their founder, the country of the founder, or a particular philosophy. There is an overt emphasis on developing self discipline, showing respect and being obedient.

Martial Sports resemble and usually descend from martial arts. They include many of the same ingredients, but place less emphasis on philosophy and individual perfection, and more upon public demonstration and competition (i.e., some schools of karate, tae kwon do, judo and jujitsu teach techniques in a way that makes them useful almost exclusively for competition). We still classify them as "martial" as they retain the uniforms and hierarchical nature. Warning: Many people who engage in or teach martial sports get very, very upset if you refer to what they are doing as a "sport."

Fighting Sports eliminate the martial and any remaining philosophical aspects and focus primarily on training to win in competitive events. Sports like boxing and wrestling are, in fact, the oldest known "martial arts" in the world, with archeology finding evidence of them dating back thousands of years. This is interesting given that many martial arts claim a connection to ancient history when most martial arts, at least in their present form and practice, are hardly more than a few decades old. Yet, the fighting sports which they look down upon are actually demonstrably much more historical.

Street Fighting strips away many of the rules, sportsmanship and spectacle of sport fighting. No referee, no judges, no time limit, and sometimes few or no rules. It may range from a formal duel between two people who have agreed to settle the matter according to some custom, to a random, savage brawl in which improvised weapons are used. The fundamental variable of fighting, whether it is street fighting or professional sport fighting, is the voluntary nature of participation. Both participants have agreed to engage the fight, whether it is for money, title, to settle a dispute, or even to the death.

Self Defense, at its most basic, is a physical conflict in which one party is not a willing participant. He is defending his person, liberty or property (or his family) from an aggressive assault, usually by whatever means are necessary. The techniques often more closely resemble those of combat training than the refined techniques of a martial artist, but with an emphasis upon escape instead of killing the adversary. The instruction emphasizes a lifestyle of polite, virtuous living, awareness of dangers, attempts to avoid dangers and to de-escalate conflicts. In this sense it somewhat resembles the earlier philosophical arts, except that the drills are not intended to express a metaphysical belief, but to practice techniques for the express purpose of injuring an attacker.

In our own case and that of other major self defense systems like Krav Maga, the philosophical emphasis is simply upon life, and on the philosophical side there is a belief (or an implication) that there is good and evil, and that we have an obligation to choose good, truth and beauty, and to protect life. Not all self defense systems include this ethical facet. Some are more like combatives or street fighting, which focus more on the basic destruction of the opponent (e.g., kajukenbo or silat).

Any of the first five can be used for (adapted to) self defense. Some will be more suitable than others. Or, someone can study self defense, its philosophy and techniques, directly. This is what we do.

We do add to this some of the useful or enjoyable elements found in various martial arts. But these are somewhat optional, and are not our emphasis. Where martial arts have to adapt to be useful as self defense, we have to adapt our self defense techniques to be useful for martial arts and sports.

At the risk of causing offense to my martial arts brethren, there is a saying that often passes through my brain: "Self defense is for adults. Martial arts are for kids." So many times I've been asked, "Little Johnny needs to develop some self-discipline, obedience and respect. Should I send him to your class?" In truth, probably not. If someone wants to learn -- or wants his child to learn -- self discipline then a "martial art" is a better choice. There he will learn to stand in a nice straight line, to keep his uniform neat, to discipline himself to show proper respect to authority, etc. But if he wants to learn actual self defense, then Via Potentia is a better choice.

In the end, the difficult reality is that the general public thinks of the terms martial arts, self defense and even some terms like karate and tae kwon do as equivalent, when these are actually very different things. You will be helped in your selection process if you think about these differences and try to decide what you really want. Otherwise you might end up spending a lot of money and time on something that doesn't really meet your goals.

To Weapon or Not To Weapon...

Martial arts that focus on grappling generally teach that strikes aren't effective. Those that primarily teach strikes say that grappling isn't effective. And martial arts that don't teach weapons will tell you what a waste of time it is to study weapons because "you'll never have it on you." Yes, I've been told that directly by their instructors, even when they knew that I teach weapons (and was carrying four different ones at the time).

The most basic of weapons in determined hands can easily nullify decades of martial arts training, power or aggression. If you want to learn actual self defense, you absolutely must learn to use conventional weapons. Choosing not to learn weapons is choosing not to learn self defense.

But sometimes errors are made in another way: Many martial arts that teach weapons usually teach ones that are not practical for self defense, cannot be carried and will basically never be encountered. Learning to use a longsword, nunchuks, sai or longstaff might be fun and make you feel good, but it will not help you in today's world. Look for a program that teaches how to use a variety of stick sizes up to about cane length, and also covers conventional, common weapons like guns, knives, pepper spray, etc.

Comparison Table

The following table attempts to summarize the general emphases of common programs. There are obviously exceptions to the statements, but it can help you get started in the right direction:

Physical Conditioning Sparring Forms Sport Application Internal Application Self Defense Application
Internal Martial Arts like Aikido, Tai Chi and Qi Gong
Good, gradual conditioning Very little sparring. Partner drills tend to be cooperative. An emphasis on development of combinations and forms individually or with a partner. Little or no sport/competitive application Many people find internal peace and comfort in the philosophies offered. Little or no direct self defense application or training
Common "Traditional" Martial Art programs under the names Karate or Tae Kwon Do (with some exceptions)
Good conditioning. Exercises often in an order that causes injuries. Sparring is more common, but with little or no contact. Targets are limited. Forms are emphasized. Tournament participation is encouraged in forms, sparring and board breaking. Less emphasis on metaphysics or philosophy Limited self defense application
Full contact striking programs like boxing, kick-boxing and Muay Thai
Great conditioning. Exercises sometimes in an order that causes injuries. Sparring is intense and has heavy contact. Targets are limited (depending on style). Bruising and cuts are common. Little or no form work Competition fighting is a necessary part of the program Very little philosophy Significant self defense application due to experience with full power striking and taking hits. Better if it incorporates grappling.
Grappling/throwing programs like wrestling, jujitsu and judo
Great conditioning. Exercises sometimes in an order that causes injuries. Sparring is intense and has heavy contact. Joint injuries and bone breaks take place. Little or no form work Tournament participation is encouraged, but you can progress without it in most cases Very little philosophy Significant self defense application due to experience with full power application against fighting opponents. Best if it incorporates striking.
Mixed martial arts programs
Great conditioning. Exercises sometimes in an order that causes injuries. Sparring is intense and has heavy contact. Joint injuries and bone breaks take place. Bruising is common. Little or no form work Tournament participation is encouraged Very little philosophy Significant self defense application due to experience with full power application against fighting opponents.
General Self Defense Training
Varies. Generally less emphasis on conditioning. Sparring is intense and has heavy contact. Heavy gear is employed that can reduce the realism, but also reduces injuries. Little or no form work None Very little philosophy Direct self defense application
Via Potentia
Gradual conditioning intended to help you find the optimal point for your body and age Sparring is emphasized and by agreement between participants. Ranges from no-contact to contact to weapons, depending on gear and participants. Includes upright, throws and grappling. Bruising is common. Forms are very complex Tournament participation is encouraged. It is required for black belt. Substantial ethical philosophy. Direct self defense application.

Making the Choice

There are many programs to choose from (depending on your location), and though we don't believe there is any perfect or "best" martial arts style, there certainly may be one that is best for you. Only you can determine which one matches your personality and desires, but we will be happy to help insofar as we can. If you seek instruction in proper physical conditioning, practical self defense, all in the context of traditional Western ethical philosophy, then Via Potentia may be a good match for you. If you are looking for something different -- something more complex (or simple), something more difficult (or easier) -- then another style may be a better choice.

Choosing a martial art is really a very personal choice. Whether you choose to participate in Via Potentia or not, here are some pointers for finding a good match:

  1. Figure out what you want! A lot of people sign up for a martial arts program saying to themselves that they want to learn self defense, but the school doesn't actually teach it; if they stay, they do so out of a sense of investment, obligation or friendship. Are you seeking acrobatic moves (and are you capable of developing the conditioning to perform them)? Do you like kicks? Do you like weapons (and which ones)? Competitions and trophies? Grappling? Conditioning? Philosophy? A narrow set of techniques and repetition or a vast set and variety? Sparring or forms? Practical self defense? For example, if you want grappling and don't care about anything else, then judo or some jujitsu schools are going to be what to seek; karate, tae kwon do, kickboxing or the like are not going to meet your desires. Nonetheless, every school will have a list of reasons why they believe their program/style is better than others, but only you can decide what will be best for you. If you don't know what you want, then perhaps any style will do, or maybe you'll just waste a lot of money and time wandering from school to school. If you know what you want, that will help you quickly winnow down to the precise schools that meet your desires.
  2. Observe some classes: Drop in, unannounced, a few minutes before the regularly-scheduled beginners classes start and ask if you may just sit on the side and quietly watch (you might be invited to participate). Observe how the instructor treats the students, and how the students behave and treat each other. Observe how he teaches them. Does he adapt to their abilities? Is he patient? Is the class as strict or casual as you desire? Do mid-level and advanced students have good techniques, or do they look sloppy? Do they even allow public viewing?
  3. Research and compare pricing: Costs vary greatly from region to region and instructor to instructor. Most martial arts quote a low-ball monthly tuition, but have additional costs like testing, annual membership, and equipment. Some push students to volunteer cleaning the gym (or performing other services for the club or instructor). Be sure to add up all of the costs when comparing pricing. Many clubs offer discounts for additional family members or longer term commitments. Recognize that the better the equipment and facilities, the more the classes are going to cost. A useful way to compare prices is to add up the time and all costs that it takes to go from beginner through black belt. You'll find that the results are all over the map.
  4. Avoid long term commitments and lump-sum payments: We urge you to avoid any martial art that requires you to sign an agreement that prohibits you from studying any other art, that locks you into long term financial commitments, or that asks for a large, up-front, lump sum payment. Your first martial art is rarely the one you end up sticking with (unless it is simply the only one available in your area). It is perfectly-reasonable for an art to require you to sign a waiver of liability and to agree not to copy or teach that art without permission. Anything more is not necessarily in your best interest.
  5. Review Black Belt Contracts/Agreements: Ask to see the testing agreement forms, if there are any, especially for the black belt exam. Many arts have questionable requirements that they don't tell you about until you are beginning your test for black belt -- that is, after you've spent years and thousands of dollars in training.
  6. Beware the "cult of personality": Some school founders and instructors have outstanding skills. It is fun to be a part of such programs. However, the key to your success isn't the skill, credentials or rank of the instructor, but the content of the curriculum and his ability to help you assimilate it. You might ask if the school even has a formal curriculum, and may you review it, or are the classes simply whatever the instructor thinks should be taught that day? This varies dramatically from one program to the next.
  7. Ask to take some free, introductory classes: Even if everything else looks fine, it really isn't until you've spent some time in the classes that you can begin to determine if the art is right for you. Equitable programs will allow you to withdraw from the classes within the first week or two and receive a full refund of tuition, less any material costs for uniforms, texts, etc. Some might generously let you stay even longer, then pro-rate a refund.

Reasonable instructors will cooperate and welcome these requests and comparisons. If an instructor simply refuses to answer these questions or provide the information, or if he is pressuring you to sign a long-term contract from the beginning, you can rest assured that, even if it is a style you like, the program probably is not a good one. If you can find a style that you like being taught well and being managed (and priced) fairly, then you've found a good match for you.

We welcome comments, questions and suggestions for improvement.
Via Potentia, 805 NW Alder St., McMinnville OR 97128
Telephone: 503-437-3450

Copyright Via Potentia. All Rights Reserved. Consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program; consult a lawyer before making a legal decision. All information provided on this web site or otherwise by Via Potentia is provided for educational/informative purposes only, is subject to correction, and should not be considered legal, medical or other professional advice. Use at your own risk.

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