Iron ManValkyrie is now open. It took us years to put in the base work, and six months of headaches, tension and bureaucratic fighting to get the doors open, but here we are. Grand opening was a success, lots of people showed up to support us and there was fighting til nighttime, followed by friendship and beverages. Now we are into the business of being a school.

I was asked recently what my philosophy of martial arts was. It was an interesting question, as I’d spent a lot of time leading up to the opening writing about what the school offered people. That’s not the same thing, though. I’ve also written here before about what drove me to start martial arts training, and how my motivations have changed over time.  It’s still not what I would call my philosophy.

I had an old student show up last week. She was in the midst of a huge transformation, shucking everything she’d believed about herself over an entire lifetime. As we sat and talked about this great change, and I looked out over my students training, my philosophy became clear.

When I see a student that I feel has been successful in what I teach, I see a transformation.  I see the person that was meant to be, rising up and out of the person they were forced to be.

I’ve written before about Yvonne Delory, my fencing partner and inspiration, and the telling comment a friend wrote in her obituary: “…Yvonne was often clumsy in life, and awkward…But when she had a blade in her hand, she was transformed into poetry in motion…”

I had a childhood full of bad things. Bullying and subtler social pressures were a pretty constant thing. It made me a loner as a child and teenager, and as I became an adult I did so with immense shyness. Growing out of that was painful for me and my loved ones. Arriving into my forties, I was confronted with what a lifetime of hiding myself had done to my body and my movement patterns. It sucked. I got past it.

As I changed my movement patterns I started to become more aware of how everyone else moved. I’ve never had a lot of natural talent as a fighter, but I’ve always had a knack for tactical thinking. I beat many opponents in my early days because I was aware of their flaws, and I knew how to make sure the fight was only about their flaws. Everyone has locked in patterns they stick to. And a lot of martial arts training is all about creating new patterns to lock into.

I don’t believe in patterns. Patterns are predictable, and being predictable is a bad thing. Patterns are easy and they feel safe. They feel like a thing you have earned. You feel safe because the thinking is done for you. Not at a conscious level, but at a subconscious level. Attractors are what happens when the body builds patterns of comfort and ease. Once an attractor is set, all new skills tend to move towards that attractor. This can lead to tremendous success for a tournament competitor…but for most people it leads to long-term injuries and a staleness in skill growth. Plateaus happen and become permanent.

Many teachers ignore attractors, and just think of them as ticks or habits that a student will always have. Many more instructors, especially in more formal systems, will work hard to impose an attractor on students. It’s common to recognize a students teacher by just seeing how a student fights, but if you know what to look for you can also see it in how they move or even stand.

Going back to my childhood, I see this as a form of quiet bullying. When you impose your will on someone else, when you shape them in your image, you deny them an essential growth. It’s a pruning instead of a nurturing.

In my teaching, I first try to strip away the attractors that a student has brought in. This can be a frustrating process because students arrive expecting to learn new and cool things, and instead I’m forcing them to do things that feel weird, uncomfortable or wrong. Things that contradict all their previous training, for no apparent reason. It’s important for me to work through this process with a student, because I need to see where their discomfort comes from. I need to see why they are holding on to the attractor, which is generally something like a foot that turns in, a shoulder held too tight and high, or a guard that is held too rigid. When I discover their reason for holding on, I can talk them past it with logic and demonstration…but most importantly, I can see the emotion that is caught up.

And when I see the emotion, I can start to work with the student towards finding out how to express themselves in their fighting. The realities of fighting are always the same: the opponent will be bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled, and they will try to kill you. The solutions to the problem of the opponent are limited only by the approach of the student. Imposed approaches provide a narrow scope for understanding problems. When the student has learned to move in a way that is more natural to them, they can discover solutions that work for them, and are likely not to have been predictable by the more rigid logic of fencing.

As a stoic,  I believe that following the path of the four virtues leads to us living the best life. The more we know ourselves and are better able to express our real nature, the more we are able to contribute to our society. I teach martial arts so that people can get better in touch with who they are meant to be, and learn to express that real self through movement. I believe that being a good member of your society means being as self-sufficient as possible. To me that means not just being capable of self-defense, but of self-nurture and growth as well. My purpose is to facilitate that through Valkyrie’s methods. We are here to transform our students.