Towards Master Moving: my way into Yoshinken


I have often asked myself why I am attracted me to the martial arts. After trying different styles and systems over the years, I have found good and very inspiring training in many places. Still I have not settled with any form of practice, and at times I have contemplated quitting. In the end, however, something has always made me come back and try news things.

About three years ago, when moving to Gothenburg, I came in contact with Sensei Marshall McDonagh. I had for some time known that he was a long-time practitioner of Taikiken, a Japanese, internally oriented budo art. Since I have a long standing interest for such practice, I decided to try Yoshinken – Sensei Marshall’s synthesis of experiences from a lifetime of budo practice.

It turned out to be an encounter with a completely different way of practicing and approaching martial arts than I had experienced before. The training was held outdoors all the year, a core element was the practice of standing (seemingly) still, and we were expected to learn new things while cultivating our previous skills to make something new out of them. Gradually I felt that there were a number of things I had been searching for, more or less consciously, to be found in the practice. In this text I will try to describe what I have found in Yoshinken practice, by introducing what I find to be central dimensions and principles in the system.

Working with energy and intention.
A problem with many forms of training I have tried – traditional as well as modern – is that they rely on muscular strength and conditioning to a considerable degree. While this is positive in the sense that it develops fitness, it tends to cause increasing problems with age. It may also be difficult to combine a physically hard training regime with a demanding work life – the consequences for me have often been increased stress and fatigue rather than the other way around. Moreover, at a certain point, you reach a level in technical and physical ability that is difficult to pass through.

An idea or principle that is fundamental in Yoshinken is focusing the development of what loosely can be referred to as intention and energy (yi and chi in Chinese). This may sound exotic and many westerners may react sceptically, but the meaning of the concepts is gradually revealed through practice.
A consequence of focussing yi and chi is that the practice is centring and stress reducing, as a consequence of increased body awareness and mental focus. The training tends to work better and better as presence and energy increase during a training session, rather than gradually leading to exhaustion. Often, I feel that the energy peaks in the end of the training session, which can make it difficult to stop! Moreover, as a beginner one may feel subtle forces or warm waves in the exercises. By time – months and years – the experience of working with or in an energy field, and not just a body, starts to develop.

With yet better control, one can make the field constantly move, stretch and feel charged or loaded (even if the physical body is still) with power that suddenly can burst out in sudden moves. These can be of rather different qualities – soft, flowing, sticky, snapping like a thick rubber band that breaks, or heavy like a lead bar wrapped in cotton. At this stage, one can more and more let the energy field direct the movement rather than the execution of particular techniques. The training here moves into a new phase, in which the experience is more and more that one works with movement through controlling the dynamic and flow of the energy field with intention, and not through directly moving parts of the physical body. This may sound like a roundabout way to move, but in actuality the field can lightning fast adapt to the movements of an opponent before conscious thought has even registered them, which gives a different approach to combat – the internal way.

This is also the reason why one can keep developing as a fighter in very advanced ages. Actually, it can be a rather terrifying experience to go up against older, but more experienced practitioner. There are no openings or things to grasp – instead you may be thrown to the ground or overwhelmed by explosive, deeply penetrating attacks that seem to slip right through your defence.

I want to point out that this has nothing to do with believing in supernatural powers. You need, however, to be open for experiencing phenomena that may seem mystical. When I use the concept chi, I refer to phenomena that gradually become part of your experience. It is simply one possible way of talking about them. In Yoshinken, those who like can practice jiyu kumite (free sparring), and there it is quite obvious what works and not.

Evidence does not necessarily need to be about combat, however. If one have witnessed the quality in motion called master moving or tanshu, developed through long-time practice, one can hardly remain untouched. Here a natural freedom and simplicity combined with efficiency that really makes one humble before the potential of human moving can be expressed. I believe it is the sense of this potential that has led me to returning to martial training time and time again. In Yoshinken and Taikiken (another of the main influences on Yoshinken) I have seen it not only fully developed, but evenly placed at the very heart of practice. Sometimes training reminds me of dancing, sometimes of calligraphy, and sometimes of architecture in the sense that we move in a three-dimensional flow where energy, movement and the structure of the body interact. To me, it is incredibly fascinating to explore the possibilities for expression that opens up through working with ones own body and energy.

Training for internal development
How can this kind of skills then be cultivated? Since I am an educational researcher in my everyday life, I find great pleasure in describing the models of instruction that are basic to Yoshinken training. This system, with roots in the arts Yiquan and Taikiken, has made a deep impression on me. It sets up for kinds of learning processes I have not experienced in other martial arts.

The basic practice we return to again and again is the seemingly simple standing position called ritsu zen. During the first years of practice, most time in ritsu zen is spent in a position in which the feet are placed in a shoulder wide stance, knees slightly bent. The arms are held out from the body, like when holding around the trunk of a tree or a big ball. While this position develops some static strength in the whole body, the point is that it leads to a discovery process in which the different parts of the body can operate as a whole.

During stranding practice, minimal moves are made while images of forces working on or in the body are visualized (for example flowing water). This leads to many small insights in how different parts of the body interact, literately from the toes to the top of the head, making the body able to more and more function as an unbroken, soft but yet strong whole. Parts of the muscular, skeletal and nervous systems are activated in new ways, gradually building up integrated strength, different from ordinary strength that relies mostly on the coordinated activation of particular muscular groups.


The integration is not static. It is not about finding a particular position, but rather, so to speak, about making different parts of the body finding and helping each other in a wide spectrum of movements. The way from standing to moving, which to me appears as quite ingenious, goes through a set of practices (yuri, hai, neri in Japanese) designed to develop different aspects of the integration. Through what can be called “the principle of circularity”, the feeling from ritsu zen is gradually clearer expressed in these practices, and in reverse, experiences from these practices are also brought back into the standing practice.

By going through the basic practices time and time again, relations between them are discovered. They are thereby gradually filled with more and more meaning, and the integrated strength can gradually be used in more intricate ways. The principle of circularity works for beginners as well as experienced practitioners – gradually one learns to compose a keiko – practice session – in which the parts contribute to and strengthen the whole. This makes every session something of an experiment in which previous experience and new insights are mixed and can be explored.

Through the regular practice of these exercises, mind and body are tuned or directed to particular insights that need to come from personal experience. In this sense, there is a parallel to other eastern practices that bodily and spiritual transformation, like yoga or meditation. The practices become a structure for the gradual experiencing, and work with, intention and energy. Something that is special to Yoshinken is that the whole at all times is present in every part of practice. In any of the basic practices, one can make insights that immediately changes the way the other practices are experienced. This is something that for me personally greatly contributes to the sense of meaning in training – it is almost like carrying around an inner dojo that can be brought everywhere.
I have also found that these learning processes are greatly enhanced by training in a focused and motivated group. Although the descriptions above may sound introvert and individual, practice is about making inner feeling and outer expression interacts, and for this, good instruction and training partners are absolutely necessary.

Yoshinken as Martial art
A basic aspect of the training is thus to investigate the internal alignment of the body, minimizing internal resistance and maximizing integrated strength. This leads to the control over an internal, rooted, “rolling” power in movement without the use exhausting muscular force (although it is not simply about relaxation, but rather to use the fully integrated muscular strength while not hindering your own movement). This does by no means exclude use or practice of conditioning and strength, but differs considerably in emphasis and point of departure. It does, however, require disconnecting many habitually tense muscular systems/circuits, replacing them with integrated, rooted and distributed ones. By adding the swiftness and focus of hakke, which is the use of short but very distinct bursts of power, surprising power, openness and freedom in your own movement become available in combat.

An important step in the martial practice of Yoshinken is to work with relating the freedom and openness that comes form integrated strength to actual situations of attack and defence. By the use of positioning (maai and kamae) and the training of perception you learn to close the relevant options to attack for the opponent, sometimes even “guiding” him or her to certain moves, while maximizing your chances to break through the defence in unbalanced or otherwise weak moments. This multiplies the effect of your power, leading to a fighting style building on master moving both within and without – preserving internal and external openness and freedom for yourself while closing down the possibilities to attack in a meaningful way for the opponent, tricking him or her into impossible situations.

Moreover, the basic exercises in yuri and neri carry within them embedded strategies or “examples” that reveal how the whole body-mind can be used. One can spend many years exploring the basic practices in relation to opponents’ position, movement and mind at a given moment of combat. Gradually, fighting moves from using power based on brute strength and aggression, to efficiency through mastery of movement, chi and intention. This gradually transforms fighting from primal reactions based on stress, fear and aggression to a demanding play of focus, energy and intention. The better you become in using the latter aspects, the more successful you become.

Yoshinken as Budo – Martial way
Finally, it should be emphasised that Yoshinken practice, like all Budo, reaches beyond the mastery of movement, energy and combat. These days, budo is often associated with tradition, and perhaps viewed as conservative and unrealistic. Sports oriented training receives more and more attention. Regrettably, this also means that the positive heritage, which makes training meaningful in a wider sense, is lost.

Tradition within Budo is important to preserve the less obvious meanings to be found in practice. The critics, however, have important points – if traditional training simply means preserving forms, one runs the risk of loosing important dimensions of practice. A living Budo tradition has to say something about life as presently lived - not only be a reflection of life (as imagined) in Asia, hundreds of years ago. Actually, critique of tradition is not something new – masters Wang and Sawai, who directly and indirectly has had great influence on Yoshinken, revolutionised training in China and Japan in mid 20th century.

Many of the most exciting moments I have experienced in training is when themes form everyday life starts to emerge: you start to recognize your way of doing things in completely different situations. Everyday tendencies and patterns have a remarkable tendency to be brought forth. Through practice, one ’s self becomes visible in a new way. Training then becomes like a mirror – kagami – an important object on the altar in a traditional dojo. Such experiences may affect one’s life in general – how reactions and energy play out in different situations. In this, there are also keys to different ways of handling them. Yoshinken means “to cultivate new meaning and spirit in life” - a truly suitable name for a way of practice that offers immense depths for those who wish to find them.


Patrik Lilja, January 2009



Patrick Lilja training with Sensei Wiert Postema during the 2008 International Taikiken Gasshuku held

at Lygnared, Sweden.