Pressure Testing and Crossing Boundaries

At the stage in my life when I got into martial arts, I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that I was done getting into any physical altercations as a way of solving problems. I did not hang out at bars or around drunk people in general. Road rage was not really an issue because I took public transportation or walked everywhere I needed to go. When I walked around late at night or early in the morning, I stayed alert and was familiar enough with the city I lived in to know where not to go. Bullies, at least in the overt sense, were a thing of the past. Self-development was really my only goal in getting into martial arts. It really had nothing to do with having a desire to learn how to fight or defend myself.

In the late 1990’s, I took up traditional Korean hapkido under the wings of some truly wonderful people, many of whom I still consider to be dear friends. After a few months of dabbling, I really committed myself to the practice and it became a central focal point of my life. Aside from some time that I took off for college (too much time) and other distractions, I trained 3-5 days a week, every week of the year, unless I was sick or out of town. For my goals, I can say that the practice and the group I was a part of were exactly what I needed. Everyone was committed to becoming better people together and we were like a family, with all of the ups and downs that come along with that dynamic. One thing we did not have, however, was live, resistance-based training. In spite of all of my hours on the mats, I did not know if I could actually apply what I knew against someone who was fighting back. I wanted to know. I needed to test myself.

My first attempt at pressure testing what I learned was to work as a bouncer at a local dock-bar where many of my fellow hapkido practitioners worked or had worked over the years. I did two seasons there and learned several things. First, I learned that most conflicts could be resolved verbally, without injecting myself into them physically. Another thing I learned was that the best way to handle a physically aggressive person or group of people was to outnumber them. One-on-one altercations with customers, no matter how aggressive they got, were frowned upon for reasons of both safety and liability. Finally, I learned that I did not have the temperament for dealing with hundreds of drunk people, in the summer sun, for eight hours at a time without some degree of the filth and debauchery around me seeping into my being. I constantly went home feeling as if some part of my decency was left behind, even if simply by association. In an attempt to test my martial art training, I found myself being taken over by exactly the types of attitudes and behaviors I joined martial arts to rise above in myself.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

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