Examining the prevalence of over-reaction and ‘Woo’ in certain martial arts.
To some, this subject will be a fun exploration of some of the more ridiculous reactions found in the martial arts world, to others a topic that hits close to home. Either way, I think that a close look at this side of the martial arts may be of merit. I have been considering how and why the sorts of things I discuss in this article arise. Not least because a large proportion of my training history prior to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA, was in Martial Arts that can sometimes produce these strange reactions, arts like Chinese Tai Chi Chuan or Japanese Aiki Arts.
I was, however, lucky enough to avoid these sorts of things for the most part. Indeed, all my teachers have been down to earth, legitimate fighters in one form or another. But far from discounting this phenomenon out of hand I wanted to understand how entire groups of people could fall under the same sort of delusion and this article represents my theory on this subject. It relates closely to ‘Body Method’ development, at least in part, because I contend it could be an error arising from certain body/mind development methods, hence my inclusion of it on the MartialBody blog.
Understanding the problem.
Firstly, I think it is important for us to know what we are talking about. I am sure anyone who has followed Bullshido or McDojo life will be very familiar with some of the following videos, some may not be. But these are some of the more extreme cases of the sorts of things I am talking about.
It is very easy to laugh at these people, to look at them and think them fakes. But you can bet your bottom dollar that among these people are highly educated, seemingly rational individuals. I have personally met some people with highly academic backgrounds who are prone to acting in these strange ways. So, I contend we shouldn’t dismiss them as frauds too quickly. There may well be other factors at play outside of their knowledge.
These videos, of course represent some of the worst of the offenders in the ‘over-reaction’ or ‘magical’ world of martial arts. But there are also many practices out there that are just touching on this seemingly bizarre area of training. It may simply be an trained 'over-reaction', or could be a conditioned way of approaching a technique. I contend that these, less extreme, versions are likely equally as damaging and can, almost inevitably, lead one to "Woo", a term used by the skeptic community to describe the fraudulent fantastical.
However, the more obvious examples above remain a better demonstration of the bizarre nature of the problem. Usually these groups have a set of claims regarding what we see occurring. They claim that either ‘energy’ of some type or another is at work to create the reactions or, more sparingly, the reactions are justified with physical concepts or phenomena, advanced mechanics or similar.
Either way, the comment from this side is that the work they are doing is ‘real’ in a certain sense or from a certain point of view. The ‘realism’ of this work is either that it is as it is seen and useful against any foe, or that it only works like this when considered in the context of the drill or training methods.
Many times this work has been tested by skeptics and always comes up lacking. So, it is useful for us to observe the difference between the reaction of students and the reactions of strangers. Some examples for your Perusal.
Note: Some of these videos show people getting injured. If you would rather not see this then please avoid the video.
The Romantic Fantasies.
It would be true to say that there are a certain percentage of martial artists that start because they want to learn how to protect themselves, still another percentage who enjoy the traditional aesthetics found in Martial arts like Iaido that have no obvious self-defence value, still others who enjoy the sporting aspect like Judo-ka or Kendo-ka, but still further there are a percentage who look to the martial arts in a search for the esoteric or ‘spooky’.
Often founded in tails from fiction, either in books or movies, the quest of this group is to seek the weird, the magical and the fantastical feats found in martial arts legend. The popularity of tricks, like breaking boards, spears or metal over various body parts, as seen in the Shaolin Monk touring shows is a hint towards this fascination.
People are naturally drawn to the strange, and the appearance of these indestructible people, who use ‘Chi’ to protect themselves from power drills, swords or any number of other seemingly dangerous objects is intriguing. Of course, when real weapons are used, the result can be somewhat different to the stage show.
Here an individual believing their powers can stop a sharpened blade finds out the hard way that they do not! Warning: Video contains blood.
For some people the old tales of masters leaping over buildings or defeating 100 opponents, of experts killing with a light touch or tapping someone on the head and them dyeing weeks later, are very real and very possible. We need only look at the popularity of ‘Superhero’ Movies to see the thirst in the general populace for magical, superhuman feats. It is simply an adjacent step to seek out those who claim to have special powers and be taken in by them.
For some it is captivating, it is real and it is believed and they are the ones who will often seek out ‘Real’ schools who focus on mystical skills. Often the obvious tricks, like breaking boards, are a gateway, the more they travel down the rabbit hole the stranger it gets. But even before they even begin training, if they end up at the wrong door, they may meet the first domino on the path to "woo".
The Unscrupulous Leaders
There will be a certain percentage of teachers who are deliberately programming students to act as they wish, often without their knowledge or understanding of the manipulation. The motivations for this can be varied, from self-gratification to self-promotion, but it is clear that there are those who pray on the wants and desires of susceptible individuals. Those individuals on a search for the ‘weird’ stuff in the Martial arts are particularly susceptible to the whims of these unscrupulous teachers. The design of their school structure, the hierarchy, the training methodology and their own Charisma are layered on top of social or peer pressure and the threat of real bodily violence to produce a toxic environment.
In these instances, it is those who are searching for the esoteric or mystical side of these arts that are most taken in. In such cases, we begin to see the emergence of ‘Cult Like’ organisations where charismatic and often legitimately skilled in some way, leaders, build layers of students around them. An ever-closer circle of students will be present with only the closest group apparently getting ‘the real stuff’. Usually this Hierarchy is, in fact, a house of cards, the cards at the top, no more special than those at the bottom.
At the lower or outside levels students will observe magical feats by the master on their inner most circle, these students who have often been programmed for a long period of time will naturally react in a way they believe the master expects them to, often in a quest to cement their position at his or her side. Firstly, the quest for acceptance will place a unique peer pressure on them and of course, the ever-present reality of violence that is present in Martial Arts is a powerful motivating factor in belief.
Imagine what it would be like to be a new student in a famous school that promotes the fantastical. You train with senior students and are on the receiving end of powerful and dramatic striking, locking or throwing (often very carefully set up with no real pressure or fighting). You then see these same students flying away from the master at the slightest touch. It is an interesting and sneaky trick that is at play. The lower level people get beaten by the higher level students, who then are throw by the lightest touch by the master. For those of a certain mental disposition, this is enough to cement that these reactions are the product of ‘real magical skill’. After all, those inner students are super tough!
There is also a history in the ‘death touch’ community, especially in the USA, of teachers learning methods like NLP or Hypnosis in order to product given effects in their students. The programmed reactions are then explained as legitimate ‘death touch’ or pressure point knock out work, where Chi is disrupted. Again, we see that these things tend not to work under scrutiny, with even the most famous advocates having to come up with ‘creative’ reasons why something may not work.
Ultimately however, I expect that at least some of the schools where we see strange reactions abound, do not fall into this category of deliberate misinformation or misguidance. There is likely something subtler going on, something that points towards an ‘Error’ in the training methodologies themselves that can lead people down this road with a full belief in its legitimacy.
The path to woo
In some martial arts ‘subtlety’ and ‘sensitivity’ are defined goals of the training. Where other styles may look to dominate an opponent through superior conditioning, these styles look to listen and follow the opponent so that they can lead them into trouble. It could be said that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu somewhat falls into this category. We need only look at experts like Caio Terra, a multiple world champion who certainly does not have a style of ‘ physical domination’. He is able to defeat far larger opponents of world class skill while not having any match for their physicality.
But more relevant to this article are other styles take this concept much further. Their aim isn’t only to listen and lead the partner into error but often to make them defeat themselves, through superior mechanics. ‘Aiki’ arts and Chinese Internal Arts will often fall into this category. Some styles are completely reliant on making subtle contact and feeling the partners force. These styles are so focused on the ability to listen to the partner that it takes up the vast majority of the two-person training, a case in point would be found in Tai Chi, where pushing hands (tuoshou) is often the primary partner training method.
When we examine the training methodologies found in arts like these, we see a pattern of training emerge that contains what I call ‘break off points’. These are points in the training progress where it would be extremely easy to become lost or even obsessed with a specific skill set and break away from the continued training syllabus.
These break off points may be in the ‘testing’ of the body method using pushing, they may be in breaking the balance, or in listening and following. I have seen all of these phases of development become peoples entire focus of training and it is from these skewed focuses, that the error in the code of the training can emerge.
It is important for me to point out that if one continues through the training appropriately, I believe that there is very real merit in some of these arts. I devoted a large proportion of my life to training in the Chinese Internal Arts and the Aiki Arts of Japan. They have some of the most advanced body methods found anywhere, they have developmental training that can transform our bodies, and contain mechanics that I use today in my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training. If channelled in the right direction they can also produce superlative fighters, indeed some of the best fighters I have met have come from Martial traditions many would not expect. But there are pitfalls at numerous points along the training path, that many practitioners will tumble down without even realising that they have.
Let’s look at Tai Chi Chuan as an example because many of the ‘Woo Woo’ videos can be found to stem from that martial art. I have met many top level Tai Chi Masters, from the Chen style to the Yang, from the old WuDang style to Wu. Very few were extremely capable fighters, but some were without a doubt. Tai Chi Chuan can actually produce powerful, agile and shockingly immediate in fighting skills. I say this with the context of having trained with multiple time World and ADCC Grappling Champions & Current UFC MMA professionals.
When I reflect on the approach of the fighting experts from Tai Chi, I would define their approach as follows.
“Take the opponents balance and then apply a fight ending technique”
This sentence sums up well the experiences I have had with Tai Chi people who could really fight and ultimately, I think, with the right viewpoint, it sums up the combative tactic of Tai Chi very well.
If we break down this idea, we see that it contains 2 parts. First, the exponent needs to disrupt the physical or mental balance of the partner in some way. This could be by making them loose their physical balance, or by mentally distracting them. Secondly, while the opponent is ‘off balance’ they need to attempt to end the fight. This can take the form of striking, locking, throwing, seizing and controlling etc. Of course, a ‘fight ending’ technique may be countered. The great Mike Tyson had one of the best Hooks in the game, but it didn’t always find its target. His goal remained to end the fight then and there however.
There is no trap in the second part of this goal, in fact most martial arts focus on this ability to set up and end fights. But the first part, that is where the meat of the problem can be found!
To train to ‘off balance’ someone in the way a Tai Chi Exponent would understand it, we must go through several steps.
- We need to build the correct body that can express and receive force in a certain way
- We must build a level of sensitivity in order to recognise our own, and our partners force.
- We must understand how to change and adjust forces either inside us, or inside the opponent to lead them off balance
- We must be able to acutely recognise the present state and change in an instant.
All of these skills can be time consuming and difficult to build and many of them are littered with those ‘break off points’ I mentioned earlier, where the practice, only meant to be a transitional stage, can become the goal of training and, ultimately, morph into strangeness.
An example of this would be the training to feel the effect of forces acting on the body. In training, even in MartialBody, we often use what are known as ‘push tests’. These tests are used to examine how our bodies handle forces applied to them and to train specific attributes in the face of these forces. But, as I have witnessed a few times, it is very easy for the push tests to morph into something beyond this simple goal.
When a body is extremely capable, when it has the attributes of stability and connection especially, pushing on it can feel like your own force is reflected back to you. You can feel this directly with an easy exercise. Simply push on a wall and feel where the pressure builds up, it will be in you.
However, when doing this with a person and not a wall, sometimes the pusher will feel that they are ‘repelled’. This is especially true if the person being pushed is constantly ‘extending’ their body causing a tiny and visually imperceptible movement. Because the pusher is linking their entire body with tension, this extension can sometimes be felt throughout the body of the pusher.
This is a trick test, it is primarily that they are pushing a superior, immovable structure. However, certain people will act like this structure is repelling them. They will perceive the build-up of tension in themselves and the inability to move the partner as a repelling force. Initially they may just fall back slightly but soon enough, the bouncing, dancing and hopping begins in earnest!
We can see that this is only an error for certain individuals because it isn’t true for all people, even those of similar experience and size. But it is more common than you might think. The good teacher would help the student get past this reaction. They would advise them to maintain a deeper level of control over their body, demonstrate with the wall example, and continue the practice watching out for the poor response. But some teachers, quite innocently, simply think it is the result of that individual being more sensitive to their special structure than others, they like that they can do this magical thing during the push test, they start to use that student more and more for demonstrations. And so, the Woo begins to build.
For most people, the training continues past these stages without the strange reactions ever developing. They develop their structure, then they move on to pushing hands type sensitivity training, which develops into structure taking skills and eventually to stand up grappling, striking etc.
For those susceptible however, the layering of additional techniques on this initial poor reaction begins a snowballing effect. As the complexity of training moves from simply push tests to more active methods like pushing hands or pairing, those susceptible individuals can really start hopping around as they feel the original ‘reflected force’ is now moving. It is this combination with movement from which, the previously immovable structure seems to have direction and power that is unavoidable. This is an error though, it is a simple misinterpretation of the initially feeling of meeting something animate, but seemingly immovable. In these cases, the turn off the road is sharp and the whole school can end up focused on something growing out of a basic, initial error in reaction.
There is a term in the Japanese Martial Arts that means ‘to receive’ – Uke. This is the role played by the person having a technique or method performed on them and often simply means that one person is going to perform a pre-arranged attack sequence, to allow the other partner to train some pre-arranged defence sequence. Whenever we see an Aikidoka being thrown, they are taking ‘Ukemi’ for the teacher and we are seeing the role of Uke in action.
In many circumstances, this is no problem at all. It is the format of many Martial Arts training methodology to learn techniques in this way, with one person performing an attack, and another performing a defence. In fact, even when we consider arts known for their sparring or free fighting, we see the role of Uke present. Most Judo or BJJ gyms will ‘drill’ techniques to embed a movement pattern and for this to occur there needs to be the person drilling the technique and a partner who it is performed on, the Uke. This has not affected their effectiveness, nor their ability to apply these techniques under pressure.
But once again this role of ‘receiver of technique’ can become distorted. In martial arts where body method, testing of body method and sensitivity abound, once again we see a ‘Break off point’.
In some traditions the role of Uke is to essentially act as a conduit for the effect of a given body method. They actively overact when a certain skill is applied so that the person applying it is aware, they got the right angle, the right mechanic etc. You see people touching another’s forearm and their shoulders shooting up while they make strange noises etc. This is often considered to be being a ‘good’ Uke and those who do not play along, can be shunned as unskilled … but more on the crushing weight of social pressures later.
The general idea here is that the Uke is giving a ‘good’ structure for the Tori (person performing the technique) to work with. It is claimed that in a real fight, the intent of the attacker to control the Uke will have a similar effect of having ‘Good’ structure that the Tori can manipulate. Unfortunately, after 7 years of security work in a very rough nightclub, I surmise that the people who say this, have likely never been in an actual fight.
In a similar way to the reflection reactions developed in push testing, the enforcement that you should present this ‘good structure’ to the Tori creates a situation where the slightest force entering the Uke is met with dramatic reactions. These reactions are trained and enforced constantly, so that they lead to individuals at the top of the hierarchy under the teacher reacting the most dramatically.
A natural extension for some, is that eventually this reactionary state moves into the world of ‘woo’. Here, for instance, we see one of the most senior sensei from the Aikikai Hombu Dojo of Aikido. I believe that this sort of work is a direct consequence of the ‘Uke’ Role being extended too far.
You can actually find very clear evidence of how this Uke mindset embeds itself in students the longer and higher they go in an art. Watch a normal Aikido practice with some well-respected Sensei or another. What you will observe is that the least trained in the room do not ‘act up’ when they interact with the teacher, often they will disengage, they will not fall when expected too, they will not roll out, they will not take Ukemi.
Usually this will be met with comments like ‘you should have rolled there’ or ‘don’t let go’. Then observe the sempai or other ‘advanced students’. You will note that they have lost these natural tendencies and freely take ‘Ukemi’ in line with the expectations of the teacher. It is extremely clear to see once pointed out, but inside these arts this is seen as advancement and not, loss of critical thinking or natural body skill.
Errors in the code
So, a combination of the combat strategies of the styles, notably the sensitivity requirements, the role of the Uke and the training methods themselves can cause some arts to go off on a tangent. Realise that for many, this error is not even noticed by the teachers or the students and could even persist for generations. They really do believe that the reactions they themselves display and the reactions that they produce in others are legitimate responses to what is occurring. I call this phenomena, an Error in the Code, of the training methodology.
An error in the code refers to how a single line of code incorrectly placed into a computer program can widely alter how it functions or break the program entirely. This is what I believe is going on in some martial arts. A single concept has developed in the training methodology that leads people out of normality and into bizaro-land.
Imagine if we found that a specific weight training protocol was more prone to seriously damaging the knees, we can say with some certainty “Ok there must be some error in this training method that is causing these injuries”. Similarly, we can look at martial lineages where people end up hopping and flying about, or being effected without touch and say, “Ok there is an error in these training methods that can cause these reactions in otherwise rational individuals.”
It is no co-incidence that the arts with a focus on sensitivity, uke, and ‘following’ the opponent are also, invariably, the arts that produce the highest proportion of people demonstrating the bizarre reactions found in the videos at the start of this article.
But there is one more thing that is going on that must not be discounted.
The role of Tradition & Social pressure.
Quite separate to the problem of the unscrupulous leader, but somewhat related to it, is the very nature of the traditional model of some of these schools. It is important to note that sometimes teachers may not be deliberately creating the social pressures that lead to students acting in this way. It may simply be another ‘Error in the code’, this time related to the structure of the organisation.
In the traditional martial arts, there are a complex set of factors at play that involve hierarchy, tradition and formality. For some people they are one of the most attractive things about the practice of the traditional arts. However, for others initial pressure to ‘fit in’, the application process to even get to train, the legends of the school, the reputation of the teacher, the history of the style and the unfamiliar terms and language may all compound to produce a unique set of social pressures on the budding new student.
The hierarchy of the school is perhaps the best-known aspect of the traditional martial arts model. As we all know, many martial arts adopt a belt system to denote the progress of an individual through the school’s syllabus. When peoples level is right there in the open for anyone to see, and when people know precisely where they stand in the pecking order, it is quite a useful tool to help people settle into a school and begin a martial arts practice.
However, the problem of hierarchy often comes when there is no clearly defined boundary between levels. This is a phenomenon we see in many traditional Chinese Martial arts. They will have broadly defined levels like ‘student’, ‘disciple’, ‘Inner door Disciple’, ‘Inheritor’ etc, but these are somewhat unknown to the new person walking in.
For some people, the uncertainty of social standing in the group creates a unique pressure that will can be handled in a number of ways. The student may simply settle in and enjoy the training, they may leave, or they may enter a state where they are craving acceptance. For a certain subset of individuals they want acceptance from their peers, as much as the skills they came to learn. The famous performance mentalist, Derren Brown, has shown time and again how simply putting someone in a certain social situation and giving them subtle hints can dramatically adjust their willingness to act in certain ways. I believe this is part of what may be happening in the videos where we see these strange reactions. For those who are susceptible, environments where strange reactions are present become reinforced by the hierarchical structure of the school.
Let’s say you join a school, you are training for a month or two and have been trying to get to know the people training there. You are starting to make headway with the older students and then see a demonstration of skill from the teacher on these students where they fly away 20 feet from a light tap. For some people, their critical thinking will have already been shut down because they are in a state where they are trying to ingratiate themselves with the group. Here, the seeds are sown, and the ‘woo’ starts to build. From then on, the sensitivity training, the push tests, the Uke role, all these things are framed within the context of those early observations when they were in a hyper receptive state to the do’s and don’ts of the social hierarchy in the school.
Ignoring the absurdity of the reactions in this video, look at the setting that the performance is taking place in. Individuals in monks’ robes, a temple style scene, a master dressed differently, initial observation by the group as the master performs on a selected student. There is a huge amount of social programming going on here.
To counter this social pressure is actually very hard for some individuals.
Imagine that you just got onto a basketball team to which you had applied. That they had won the championship 50 years ago and still rode high on that reputation. That they had a coach who was 70 years old and had fearsome reputation. But you go to training and they are training kicking the ball up through the hoop. Would you have the guts to walk up to that coach and call them out on this useless training method? Most people would simply walk away and not train there, but a few, would stick around thinking “This must be right because the coach is so famous, and they won that championship 50 years ago! Its probably to do with co-ordination or problem solving or something”.
Maybe the example is a little silly. But this is, unfortunately, the place that some beginner martial artists inhabit. They have no idea what is good or bad, and if they have a penchant for the esoteric as discussed earlier, then this may be precisely what they are searching for, real or not.
Getting out of hand … literally!
Perhaps the most egregious form of this martial madness is when students fly away from the teacher without him even touching them. This provides the most bewilderment for serious martial artists like myself. Now there are in fact ways to produce a reaction in an opponent without touching them. Lift your foot towards a man’s balls and they will invariably move!
But, for those who don’t know … let’s have a little look at what we refer to as ‘No Touch’ work. (with perhaps the best soundtrack available on the subject!)
I have conversed with people to which this work is apparently real. They often deflect questions by saying “can you do it?! Then you shouldn’t comment” or some similar strawman. They talk of intention, air power, Chi and even, in some cases, advanced Physics.
But far more likely is that these people are susceptible to all of the points made in this article and that we are simply seeing the extreme end of the spectrum of ‘Woo’. These people are susceptible to suggestion, searching for something mystical, indoctrinated into schools with hierarchical and peer pressures, perhaps subject to the whims of unscrupulous teachers and most definitely taken down a rabbit hole of sensitivity.
It must be stated that, in spite of the many examples on YouTube, “No-Touch” work is actually quite rare, even in the arts that are prone to its production. Far more concerning to me are the over the top reactions when in contact with the partner, as these may still end up justified in some way by the unscrupulous teacher.
Who cares? They're literally not hurting anybody (because they hardly touch them!)
One might legitimately ask the question, why does it matter? And you would be right to wonder what harm these strange activities really do. After all, if people are happy to be launched 20 feet across a room, then that’s their prerogative. Of course, you are right, ultimately it is their choice. But it would be valuable to investigate the common dangers of this type of work.
One of the biggest problems I have seen in people who have been indoctrinated into this type of work is a type of oversensitivity and even hyper-vigilantism. These are states where individuals are essentially ‘on edge’ all the time because they are so ‘sensitive’.
They have trained themselves to touch things and over -react to the feeling that it gives them. Their nervous systems often bare the main brunt of this type of training and the unfortunate results can become quite apparent. In the martial setting they can display jumpy behaviour, a lack of external focus, a lack of co-ordination and a fragile disposition. When someone applies real force or pressure to them it can result in deep seeded ‘fear’ response or an over-reaction to the power applied. I have had susceptible people attend seminars with me where they talk of ‘electric shocks’ and how they were ‘frightened’ by my determined, but controlled movements towards them, even without contact.
In a non-martial setting, I have seen people develop ‘ticks’ or other neurological ques to highlight that something about their training has had a negative impact on their general physical wellbeing.
But perhaps a larger problem arises that is unseen. The problem is in the effect that this type of training has on the human mind. If one is consistently being trained to ‘over-react’ to stimulus physically, to be unbalanced in their physical action, while simultaneously believing they have ‘The Real Stuff’ it can create an unbalanced mental position than can be very dangerous for the individual.
Not least because when their method is faced by someone from a tough combat art like MMA and they or their master gets beaten with just a couple of punches, it can be world shattering.
Imagine for a moment the problem the students of this teacher now face. Some may have spent decades with him, learning this work and the delusion is shattered in a few punches and kicks.
When I have quizzed people who advocate this type of stuff, they will often say that it is useful for fighting or self-defence. That the effect would be somewhat lessened on people who are not a sensitive as the top students, but that the method is in fact useful. Parse that out to a real self defence situation and you have a recipe for not only delusion … but a real possibility that someone will be seriously injured because of it.
As I have explained in this article, I believe there is more to these strange Martial highlight reels than meets the eye. It would be very easy to dismiss them as simply ‘faking’ and of course that is part of it. But there are also often layers of factors, programming and errors in training that people have gone down to get there. Hopefully with a clear view of the ‘errors in the code’ those still trapped in the world of hopping around, flying 20 feet, no touch work and Chi blasts can begin to extricate themselves from these methods and benefit from the stability that can result from doing so.
Note: all videos used in this article have 'public sharing' enabled on youtube and are used under far use policy. I do not claim ownership of any of the videos present in this article and simply embed them here to aid in the reporting of the article positions.