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
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.
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
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