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We often label other martial arts groups as a cult, and laugh at their silly behaviour and rituals, but at the same time we are a bit blind to the cult-like aspects to the things we do, because that’s ‘normal’ to us.

I went to a different BJJ school one time and they kept making jokes about my home school being a cult because we have to wear an official gi when training, which is more expensive to buy than a normal gi. There were a few other things mentioned, but that was their main issue. A white belt from another branch of my school had visited previously and he had committed the cardinal sin of facing the corner while tying his belt – that was apparently also a sign of a cult and they recounted the story with much hilarity – “I thought he was having a piss in the corner!”.

However, in that school I observed students doing several things that were equally cult-like, but were apparently completely normal to them:

  1. If you stepped on the mat without bowing, that was 10 burpees.
  2. Classes started and ended by lining up and bowing to the teacher.
  3. I (a grown man) had to ask permission from the teacher to have a sip from my water bottle, or wanted to leave the mat for any reason. And then ask permission to come back on.
  4. If a black belt asked somebody to roll, they weren’t allowed to say no, even if they had already agreed to roll with another person.

Now we do some of those things in my school too – we line up and bow at the start, for example, and bow onto and off the mat, but some of those things we don’t do. However, they’re all just different versions of showing respect to each other before and during training. We are learning techniques that have the ability to kill and maim, and people could easily get hurt in the training if we weren’t respectful of our partners safety. Building an atmosphere of respect around the training will hopefully instill that in the actual training.

There is something of an uneasy tension in modern martial arts between capitalism and customs. In modern times the people in a martial arts class are usually paying to be there – they are, as modern capitalism likes to call it “paying customers”. The phrase “the customer is always right” has not entirely entered the martial arts vocabulary yet. It still retains these throwbacks to its “traditional” student and master marital arts heritage, for the reasons outlined above.

But let’s not muse on capitalism too much. The point of this post is to draw attention to the blind spots we all have. To return to that BJJ school – the higher belts were technical, but also fighty without being overly aggressive or dangerous, and the instruction was good and clear, the rolls were good too. But I could have done without the undercurrent of tribalism that that had been instilled in the students and was reinforced by the higher belts.

I think it’s worth repeating that all martial arts are cults, and if you think yours isn’t… then isn’t that exactly what a cult member would say? My attitude is to accept the various rules and customs of each particular cult or organisation as the price for them existing. Without any rules anarchy and disorder would break out and there would be no club at all. The Xing Yi classics famously say – “There is only structure, and there is only Chi”. With no structure, the Chi just leaks all over the place, and with too much structure I guess it can’t flow anywhere. A happy medium is what you’re after.

We (human beings) have the same attitude to our own bodies as well – we don’t see our own blind spots. The way we walk feels natural to us, but that might involve pointing the toes outwards at 45 degrees, compromising our lower back, instead of forward, for no good reason except habit. We might have been doing that for 30,40,50 years, and will probably keep doing it until the day we die without question, until somebody comes along and points out our blind spot, at which point it has become our ‘normal’ and it feels weird to walk in any other way.

A little period of self refection on the subconscious and conscious beliefs we hold true, without thinking about them, is always a good thing.

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