Styles: Pros & Cons

Today, styles or "ryuha" are ubiquitous in karate. They emerged in the early 20th century on Okinawa and have continued to diversify throughout the world since then. Styles of all martial arts have several good things to offer to students. They also have many drawbacks. In this article we will explore the the pros and cons of styles and how we can use that knowledge going forward.

Miyagi Chojun keeping a watchful eye over a group of students.

Miyagi Chojun keeping a watchful eye over a group of students.

Pros

Tradition. Styles, without a doubt, allow you to immerse yourself in an ancient tradition. You will have the opportunity to learn about another culture and gain new perspectives that are unique to that martial art. You can surround yourself with people who share a common interest with you. You will learn that tradition through others who came before and you may eventually pass it on to others after you.

Beginner friendly. If there is one type of student who reaps the most reward from stylistic training it is the beginner. All forms of karate share the same fundamentals. Therefore, no matter which style someone starts out in, he is likely to get a solid foundation upon which to build. Styles offer structure for the novice. The path for his improvement is laid out for him. The new student is at the stage where exponential progress can be made just by simple imitation of his teachers. So long as the student shows up to class, participates in the drills, and accepts critique by his instructor, then he will see almost instant improvement and immediate gratification for quite some time. This is a good thing!

Uniformity. Generally, if I were to travel from my home dojo to another dojo of the same style I would obviously expect to encounter some degree of variation but I would also reasonably expect to share the same kata and movements overall. I would also expect us to have close ancestry in regard to stylistic lineage. My rank would likely be recognized. This is advantageous if someone relocates but still desires to train in a familiar way.

Cons

Tradition. Yep, it made the list twice. Tradition is a double-edged sword. Its key strength is its ability to preserve something through many generations. Unfortunately, styles have a way of carrying on traditions merely for tradition's sake and can be fiercely protective of them. This can be especially true of some people with high rank within a style. After all, their source of authority and sense of legitimacy might very well be tied to those traditions. When this is the case it is the student that suffers. Tradition alone is not necessarily self-validating. Whether a tradition has any real worth or not is not always evaluated. Unfortunately, many martial artists knowingly or unknowingly allow themselves to fall into that trap. In the worst cases, students just take instructions from their sensei without ever analyzing what it is they are actually doing or why they are doing it. This in turn gets passed on to their students and the cycle continues. This is a case of the blind leading the blind.

Limited perspective. Styles are like snapshots of the larger world of martial arts. All styles have an originator and in reality a style is just a systematic way of passing on that particular person's perspective of the art. However, no one person has the complete perspective. This is not to say that such a person's perspective is not valuable. On the contrary, you can learn something from everyone's point of view. However, you have to take it for what it's worth and be aware of its limitations. It is common for the growth of a martial artist to stagnate because they are stuck trying to follow someone else's perspective. As you grow as a martial artist you may actually find yourself outgrowing the "borders" of your style. This is natural and it should be considered a good thing. However, a student might feel uncomfortable expressing perspectives that challenge those of his teacher or style.

Going forward...

As you can see, styles have their strengths and weaknesses. In order to take ownership of our training we must recognize those strengths and weaknesses and adapt our training to them. It really comes down to what you want out of your training and what direction you want to take it in. There are going to be those people who are completely satisfied with staying loyal to their particular style. That is respectable. However, it is useful to look beyond your style's perspective and investigate its blind spots. Evaluate your styles traditions and their worth to you. Are there good reasons for the traditions you observe? Do you know why you are observing them in the first place? These are all questions worth asking. Perhaps you will find that you are beginning to feel limited by style and need to take your training in a new direction. Just as it is important as a beginner to avoid falling into the mental trap that says, "the style that I train in is superior to all others", as you mature as a martial artist you should also avoid the mental trap that says, "my perspective is invalid next to those of my teachers'." You and I are just as capable as the old masters were of forming unique perspectives based on our own training and personal experiences. The reason why the old masters are so respected in the first place is because they dedicated the time and effort required to form their own methods and had a willingness to share them with others. Perhaps you will begin to look at a style not as the entire path, but as a starting point for the journey.

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Luke Pecor