Can you learn to apply “martial arts principles” without training in a martial art?

posted in: Aiki, Leadership | 8

An interesting visit to Quentin Cooke’s Business Dojo near Cambridge . . .

Anyone serious about martial arts will tell you that their practice has transformed them over time.

We often wish that more other people could share in these benefits. The quote on the right is a world we’d love to see,

But there’s a problem. Inexplicable as this may seem to readers of this blog, many people don’t want to learn martial arts!

However, in true Aikido style, sensei Quentin Cooke wants to blend with (not fight!) this fact and turn it around – in his mission to introduce the principles of Aikido to non-martial artists.

I recently attended a one-day course at Quentin’s beautiful village dojo. It was an introduction to Embodied Leadership through Aikido principles.

Experienced martial artists are always warmly welcomed to the Business Dojo. The courses are designed however to be accessible to business people with little or no knowledge or experience of Aikido or other martial arts.

What’s the problem Quentin is trying to solve?

Quentin writes:

In this internet age, where so much can be done at the click of a button and so much of our communication with others is done at a distance, it is not surprising that so many people have lost touch with their bodies and with each other. We ignore the subtle signals that our own body and the bodies of others send all the time at our peril.

This disembodiment is very unhealthy for individuals and society as a whole and so it’s vital that our leaders re-connect with themselves and the people they touch, physically as well as metaphorically. The result will be greater awareness, which in turn will lead to better decisions that benefit us all . . .

How can martial arts help?

For one thing, martial arts practice brings us into direct physical encounter with other people, in a way that cuts right across modern “disembodied” ways of being and relating to each other.

Aikido training at Quentin’s dojo

It also teaches life lessons at a very powerful, somatic level, far beyond what words may achieve. It’s widely acknowledged now that learning through our bodies can be extraordinarily powerful.

For example, scientists have found that people learn a new language more easily when words are accompanied by movement.

I’ve written elsewhere about how martial arts training can help to teach survivors of abuse about boundaries, when they have been left feeling (in Paul Linden’s words):

That they have no boundaries, that other people can do what they want to them.

Being told they need to set and maintain better personal boundaries can be pretty much meaningless to someone who doesn’t understand what these words mean in practice, and wouldn’t know where to start. This can feel frustrating and demoralising for them.

But physically practising things like maintaining ma’ai (combative distance), and keeping attacks out can have a very deep impact on the student, as the learning penetrates your whole being, and starts to transform your whole personality.

When it comes to rethinking and redefining our relationships with colleagues then, the embodied partner practice inherent in martial arts is likely to have much to offer.

But what about people who aren’t interested in learning martial arts?

This is the challenge. Martial arts training can potentially offer so much. But many people are just not interested. Jackie Bradbury writes, wryly:

Generally speaking, outside of “Oh, that person is a martial artist” and all of the attendant misconceptions people have about our weird little hobby (hands as registered weapons with the cops, chop-socky hands, “I bet you could kick my ass”, etc.) – nobody really cares about what we do.

I know, it’s hard to believe, but nope, the normals really don’t care about the interpretations of that kata you’re working on, or a deep analysis of that last UFC fight, or that latest insight on how you might use a weapon in a specific situation.

Is there any way to break through this barrier?

This is Quentin’s mission. He’s patiently trying to entice people who don’t study Aikido, to access and enjoy some of its benefits. It’s a tough challenge, but one he is passionate about.

What is embodied leadership?

The idea of “embodied leadership” is a growing field of interest. Pete Hamill summarises it beautifully:

In our current culture our head is the important bit. The body is what brings it around from meeting to meeting, and if our body’s lucky, we’ll take it to the gym occasionally and look after it. That’s common sense in our culture, and when we think about leadership, the body may have something to do with it – body language for example – but the head’s the important bit; right?

What if, however, that’s not right? What if the body does play a very important role, and that this goes beyond just body language?

[…] Embodied learning is a level of learning where you can learn to do something differently, consistently and when under pressure. This is different to memorisation or knowing about a subject [It’s] about learning to lead at a deeper, more fundamental level, working through the body to deeper levels of self-awareness, developing the capacity to be the leader you want to be, and achieving what you are committed to achieving.

Quentin’s approach

Quentin applies the principles of Aikido to leadership mindsets and behaviours. For example he focuses on questions such as:

– How do you stay aware and receptive in your relationships and communications?
– How do you stay centred in your discussions?
– How do you stay grounded in your decision making?

He leads participants to physically experience what he calls a state of GRACE, where leaders are:


The idea is that these lessons will be learned deeply through the body – and carry over into everyday life and work interactions.

What the course covered

To summarise broadly, the morning was all about getting in touch with, understanding and managing what is happening inside yourself.

This has to be the first stage. One of my senseis said very interestingly the other evening:

In our school, gaining first dan just means that you’ve acquired a basic understanding of how your body works and what’s happening inside you – and that you’re now ready to start learning properly.

The afternoon was about applying these insights to understanding and managing others. Quentin invited us to start applying the state of GRACE to real-life interactions via five principles:

Participants on one of Quentin’s “Business Dojo” courses

a. Be aware

b. Do your best to assess where whoever you are interacting with is at

c. Respect people’s views and actions, even if you don’t agree with them

d. Place yourself in their shoes to gain the best perspective of why they act and speak as they do. (An understanding of where people are coming from, lets you know where you need to lead them from, and how).

e. When you act, do so with confidence

Of course these are areas for lifetime study, and there’s only so much can be covered on a one-day course. But we certainly packed a lot in!

What will attendees gain?

I think business people could gain a great deal from this course. Experienced martial artists could benefit from making more explicit links between what they learn on the mat, and how they conduct themselves and connect with others in the workplace.

For those who’ve never tasted the wonders of physical martial arts training, there may be incredible treasures in store. The exercises Quentin chose could be mind blowing to someone who currently feels somewhat disconnected from their body – or who has never even really thought about it.

Will attendees miss out on anything, compared with “real” martial arts training?

Quentin’s offer is deliberately focused on the light, soft, exploratory, relational side of martial arts training.

In much (although not all) martial arts training, there’s equally a darker, harder side, which Quentin apparently seems to elide – the bruises, pain, sweat and occasional tears. The stressful encounters with structured violence. The discipline of leaving the house on cold, dark, rainy evenings every week throughout the long winter.

Exploring the interplay between the light and the dark (in/yo, or yin/yang) is for many people the essence of the magic and mystery of martial arts training.

But Quentin is not for one moment claiming to teach a complete martial art here. Indeed, its incompleteness is the whole point. He’s carefully offering a lighter, more palatable take on martial arts, to an audience that would otherwise probably not access martial arts at all.

Because full-blown martial arts are simply not at all attractive to many people

Rodney King has a lot to say on this topic, as he urges martial arts instructors to wake up to the modern world:

I used to advertise my business as teaching self-defence and competitive fighting. But I realised over time that this was losing me a vital firm of business: word of mouth referrals.

I had some corporate executives training with me and I knew they were getting a great deal from the work we were doing together. It made them feel good about themselves, they learned how to handle pressure and were able to transfer the lessons into their career and life.

I assumed they’d be keen to tell their friends and colleagues about my work – but they never did. Eventually I asked a client why.

His answer really got me thinking:

“Rodney, I love training here, it has done so many positive things for me in my life and career. But you advertise your gym as a self-defence and competitive fighting school. I am actually kind of embarrassed to tell my other corporate buddies what I do in my spare time […] I always come away feeling like my colleagues see me as this wannabe tough guy that gets off on hurting people.

A perfect example of the way language can make or break your business […] I knew I’d need to change the way I described what I did.

The Martial Arts Game by Rodney King – pages 55-6

No physical pain is involved . . .

In the advertisement for his course, Quentin wrote:

The course […] does not involve the use of martial arts techniques and there is no pain involved.

He later emailed all participants:

Wear casual clothes and be prepared to go bare foot as we will be carrying out much of the work on the mat, (remember we won’t be doing martial arts techniques and there is no pain involved, just fun).

He’s wise to emphasise this, given his target audience Realistically, people looking at a course that uses “martial arts principles” may be scared or put off by the popular connotations of pain and violence; and it’s astute of Quentin to realise and mitigate this up front.

I think also that Quentin would strongly argue that he does address the dark side in his teaching anyway, in a different way. Even on this brief taster day, he led us quite deeply into our own embodied expressions of difficult emotions such as anger, fear and jealousy.

In any case, who am I to say what is “complete” and “meaningful” anyway? It’s very likely that students could attend Quentin’s course and feel every bit as transformed as I do from Karate. Just because I personally feel that in the right circumstances, bruises can be conducive to spiritual growth, doesn’t mean that everyone needs to follow that path.

In any case, as blogger M Boshoff has just commented on this article (in the excellent Google + Martial Arts Forums):

Can you learn to apply “martial arts principles” without training in a martial art? Well – The Tao Te Ching was not a martial arts manual, but Taijiquan demonstrates its principles. Zen can be experienced through martial arts as well. I feel that what we call “martial art principles” are actually universal principles that manifest in martial arts. We have people after all that will tell you that you can learn a lot about life from baseball . . .

The need to practise these skills 

In just one day, Quentin could only ever skim the surface of the deep truths he is longing to transmit. He opens a tantalising door on this course. But as the senseis say in my own dojo:

We can open the door for you, but you need to go through it yourself.

Quentin is of course aware that his teachings are unlikely to take deep root without some kind of sustained, disciplined, embodied practice. He has two main responses to this at present.

Firstly, the course emphasises what participants can take away, in terms of a personal daily practice, in order to live the principles over time. Examples we discussed included:

– Take time out to do a breathing/mindfulness exercise (Quentin had taught us an example)

– Make a conscious effort to sit and stand properly, indeed to explore the best way of using your body in anything you do.

– Practise centering, before opening your mouth, (speaking from a place of calm).

– Practise awareness as you walk through your town centre. How aware are the people round you. Even better make an effort to do it in your work environment.

– When having difficult discussions try to put yourself in their shoes both mentally and physically, (the latter might be manifested by coming alongside to talk rather than face to face.

Secondly, Quentin is looking to set up some kind of ongoing support group or forum – either physically and/or virtually. This would give participants some of the benefits of regular martial arts training – including peer support and accountability; and access to a guide – in a light touch kind of way.


If I had my way, good martial arts training would be far more widely available – and far more popular too.

However, the reality is that most people don’t want to learn a martial art. So the choice is – do we stay in our dojos feeling sad (even faintly smug) that they don’t join us, and just enjoying the benefits by ourselves?

Or is there a way (as Quentin hopes) to tease out some more palatable aspects of a martial art and serve these up to people as a nice, inclusive alternative – a kind of light and comfortable entry point to the full offer.

People will not gain much physical fitness from attending Quentin’s business dojo – or the ability to land or take a good punch. But they will hopefully gain other treasures. And in this modern Western world, where stress is a powerful enemy – and the biggest threats we often face are more often related to overwork or workplace politics, than physical attacks in the street – there’s a definite need for what he is offering . . .

Disclosure: Quentin is a good friend, and I’m blatantly promoting his business with this article. However, I wouldn’t do so if I didn’t like and respect what he is doing.

I have no financial or other interest in his work, other than sincerely wishing him well in his mission to share aiki principles more widely.

I will disclose though that Quentin waived his normal fee for me to attend, in return for detailed written feedback on the course, which I’ve provided to him.

The Business Dojo is run by Quentin Cooke, who apart from running his own successful financial services business for the last 19 years, is an international teacher of aikido. (black belt 7th dan). Quentin focuses on how what he has learnt from martial arts training can help businesses assist their employees to be become more effective and at the same time more fulfilled. He is the joint founder and Chair of a growing aikido association called Aikido for Daily Life, based in the U.K., but with international links.

Quentin also runs his own aikido club, which is now over 22 years old in the village where he lives. Additionally he is a board member of Aiki Extensions, an international charity based in the United States, which he has served for around 10 years.

You can read Quentin’s blog here , and his book here.


8 Responses

  1. Morag Warrack

    Really enjoyed this great piece. You have summed up the “take-aways” from the day extremely well, and I completely agree with the message that both yourself & Quentin are sending out there:- Give it a go and prepare to be amazed!

    • Kai Morgan

      Thanks for your kind feedback Jason! Yes, I totally agree with you that you could miss out on a lot of richness without having a “real” practice as you put it, to support the theory . . .

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