When it comes to practicing the martial arts, gravel changes everything… it really does.

Our martial arts school, Renaissance Martial Arts, recently moved to a new location in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts. Though I knew it was coming for a while, aspects of the move have been tough. Our previous space, 34 Elton Street, was our program’s “home,” even if it wasn’t technically our first space.

Renaissance Martial Arts officially started1 in 1999 in the backroom of a Karate school in Henrietta. We moved to Elton in 2002. When we got there the space, which had last been used for some sort of electronics work, was completely run down. Our first three months were spent renovating — removing a drop ceiling, building changing rooms, refinishing the floor after first digging out all of the little pieces of wire and sodder embedded in it. We literally built the school ourselves.

Times change, and accepting hard realities, we change with them. A core tenant of our approach to the martial arts is the concept of “adaptive flow.” And adapting always involves movement — sometimes even literally moving to a new home.

And that gets me to our new home at 46 Sager Drive and gravel.

[An arial view of our new home, and the alley along side of it]

Though the size of the (traditional) training floor is smaller than at Elton Street, 46 Sager Drive offers a staggering range of “supplemental” training spaces. For example, a few weeks ago, Sifu Mark (Sifu being the title for “instructor” in the Chinese martial arts) helped us understand what it means to work our backs “to the wall” by holding a number of classes in the narrow hallway that runs alongside the school. Yesterday he held class for the first time in another of our supplemental spaces — the alley directly to the right of our building (picture courtesy of Google Maps).

Martial Artists often talk about the dangerous environment of “the street” — hard pavement, gravel, broken glass (some, tongue-​firmly-​in-​cheek add “lava” to the list). We all accept that it’s bad news. But I suspect that only a few have had the experience of actually practicing in that environment.

Gravel changes everything. The same can be said for brick walls, chain linked fences, dumpsters, telephone poles, and a ton of other environmental elements.

It changes one’s willingness to “take a fall.” I’m a teaching assistant — in the martial arts that’s a euphemism for punching dummy — and one of my responsibilities is to be the one that things are demonstrated on. In other words, I get thrown around a lot on a lot of different surfaces — mats, grass, indoor tracks, astro-​turf, hardwood floors, and even smooth cement. But in that alley, standing on rough pavement and gravel, when faced with the idea of taking any sort of breakfall my body and mind responded with a resounding “hell no.”2

Gravel changes the way one stands and moves. I can’t count the number of times I slipped and skidded. This usually happened while working a partner drill, meaning that in many cases this was happening at the “worst possible time” — i.e. when I was trying to get out of path of an attack. And as bad as the momentary lose of physical stability was, what was worse was the loss of mental stability. In that “oh crap, I’m slipping on gravel moment” my mind all too often focused on me slipping versus the person trying to punch me in the face.

Brick walls change things too.

One of the exercises we worked dealt with getting backed into a wall. The challenge was to “accept” (for the purposes of the drill) that you are so focused on the person who is threatening you that you unintentionally back yourself into the wall. The goal here is not so much to hit the wall, as to learn what to do when you do “hit”, or at least bump into, the unexpected barrier. Try as I might, I could not make myself unknowingly back into that all too real wall behind me when there was a “threat” in front of me.3 Like the breakfall, this is the type of thing I’d have no problem doing inside the “safe” environment of a traditional classroom.

Gravel changes everything.

But it also changes nothing.

It changes nothing, because, at the end of the day, we were still thinking, working, and practicing the same ideas and techniques we worked in the normal classroom. Despite harder and, at times, slipperier surfaces, punches were still punches, kicks were still kicks, and the human bodies involved still all had one head, two arms, and two legs, all connected by and to a central spine. Because everyone, new and old student alike, used those concepts that have been driven into us through countless repetitions on our usual, traditional, training floor, we all transitioned with relative ease to the uncomfortable brick and gravel of that alley.

We’re all looking forward to going back to train there soon (not to mention bragging to the people who missed class that we — and not them — got the chance to train in the alley. That’s what happens when you miss class).

I’ll always miss our old home, but experiences like last night’s show me how much there is to love about our new one. More importantly, they serve as a reminder that who we are — the fundamentals of our practice and our school, even each of us as students of the martial arts — don’t change just because our environment does. If they had then they wouldn’t be fundamentals.

  1. I say officially because prior to that we trained in a traditional “underground” way, having no name, gaining students through word of mouth, and making our home in basements and backyards. []
  2. The response, a physical versus a verbal one, from the Sifu was a simply “yes, you will” was delivered by gently depositing me to the hard pavement at the end of a demonstration. You can’t always get what you want… but you find sometimes you get what you need []
  3. Instead, I’d take a few “natural” steps backward and then shift into a more “tactical” way of backing up while gaging how much space I had. Note that from an application point of view, this is a good thing. But from a training point-​of-​view, my inability to control myself didn’t allow me to practice the drill as intended. That’s a not-​so-​good-​thing.

    That inability to control myself also displayed, well, an inability to control, or rather regulate, myself — to actively be in the moment rather than letting habits drive me. Again, in push-​comes-​to-​shove application, not a bad thing, but to learn and progress you need to be able to put even good habits aside at times. []