Skip to main content

Cult of Personality

"Look in my eyes, what do you see? 
The cult of personality 
I know your anger, I know your dreams 
I've been everything you want to be 
I'm the cult of personality....
I sell the things you need to be 
I'm the smiling face on your tv 
I'm the cult of personality 
I exploit you, still you love me 
I tell you one and one makes three 
I'm the cult of personality ...." Living Colour

It is an interesting time to be a martial artist, particularly a jiujitsuka. As members of Team Lloyd Irvin's infamous Medal Chasers run for the hills, and more and more stories surface about inappropriate business practices, and even worse, inappropriate sexual behavior (to catch up, go here:, it is a good time to question how in the hell people get caught up in these kind of situations. Why would you sign on with a devious, narcissistic, cult-like BJJ instructor? Why would you give him thousands of dollars to be a part of his magical money making scheme? Why would you ignore obvious moral deficiencies in order to become a champion?

Martial arts teachers are always leaders. The inherent structure of most traditional martial arts easily lends itself to a kind of hero worship;  with a clear ranking system, an environment of bowing and revering higher belts and a syllabus where knowledge is doled out slowly, one grain at a time. All of this is fine, in fact, it adds depth to training, makes it more than just a sport. But it is easy, far too easy, for all of this tradition to cross over into something more akin to religion than martial arts. And, as became painfully clear with Lloyd Irvin, you don't need the old Chinese warrior to create a cult. In non traditional environments it just becomes about the winning. The coach who produces winners can do no wrong.

When I was coming up through the ranks in karate, we tested for black belt at the main headquarters of our style, a two floored monstrosity on 23rd street in Manhattan. Not only did we travel to the "Honbu", but we had to stand in front of my teacher's teacher, the legendary Kaicho Tadashi Nakumura, founder of Seido Karate. I had only met him a few times, at other organization events, but I had read his books (he had two at the time, now there are probably more) and heard many incredible stories from my teacher.

Picture a "Kaicho Nakumura" in your head. Got it? Yup, what you are picturing is exactly what he was like. Japanese. Average sized in stature but huge in presence. Mostly soft spoken, except when angry. Occasionally grunts in Japanese. Has a bunch of black belts who follow him around doing his bidding. Gives speeches after class about the way you should live your life, how you should treat your family, and so on, while wide-eyed white belts look on in awe.

The thing is, Kaicho Nakumura was a nice guy. He had a good heart, a kind spirit, and the genuine belief that karate could change people's lives for the better.  He was about discipline. And respect. And honor. And he was a no-joke karateka. The real deal. 

He was no Lloyd Irvin, that's for sure.

Yet still, people would whisper his name in reverence  Students would practically trip over themselves in order to pass privileged information to him, to gain his favor. If you were in his inner circle, you were worthy. If you were lucky enough to be in his class, you were hoping that some of the magic dust would fall on you, thereby transferring all the secrets of the ages into your soul. Students carried his bags. They brought him water. They didn't eat until he took his first bite. And some of them would sell their first born child if Kaicho Nakamura told them too.

Did this man actually have the balls to stand up there and demand that everyone worship him? No. He never even talked about himself. He was just being a karate teacher. He didn't ask for any of this? He didn't! It just happened! It just happened purely because he was the head of this karate organization and people were looking for a guru to follow. Can you imagine what would happen if the person in charge was actually trying to be God?

You get...well, you get Lloyd Irvin.

I have not been involved in Seido Karate for over 11 years so I honestly have no idea what it is like there nowadays. But I have had hundreds of conversations with other martial artists over the years. I have heard people seriously question their teacher's motives behind their backs, but show up every day for class anyway, for years. I have seen people blindly nodding their heads to explanations about magical "death touch" techniques, as if the existence of a magic punch that instantly stops the heart is perfectly reasonable. I have seen people on the top of the medal podium, look into their teacher's proud eyes and known that in that moment they would do anything, absolutely anything for him. I have even seen students look at my husband that way, with awe, with that hunger to consume the mystery. I have seen the way parents look at me when I tie on their four year old's blue belt.

It has been 24 years.  I have seen some other things too. Hell, I have seen it all.

It is SO easy to cross that line. As a teacher, you actually have to work at not creating a cult. If you care to, that is.

There is no magic in the martial arts. There is mystery. There is tradition. There are amazing physical feats. There are techniques and katas that go back thousands of years. There are techniques so intricate that it takes eons to master them. There is knowledge that only comes from hard time put in. I would even venture to say that there are some things here beyond our understanding, things that have to do with energy and focus. If you have chosen a good teacher, they will show you how to do things with your body that you never thought you could do. They may even change the way you see yourself, and the way you see the world. These are all good things. Usually.

Training in the martial arts can be the most powerful, life- altering experience. It can be the thing that defines you. It was, and still is, for me.

It can also be something else entirely.

Instructors, you know who you are.  You can ignite people's spirits, lift them up, make them feel alive. Or you can break them.
You know the power you have. Don't abuse it.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

November 20, 2018

This morning, while out walking my dog, I watched a mother put her young boy onto the school bus. "Have a good day," she said. "Listen to your teacher."

The boy, who was about five years old, replied that of course he would, although it was unclear which of his mom's wishes he was agreeing to.

Listening. So and so is a "good listener." We talk so much about it, but many of us have no idea how to actually do it., so caught up in the words inside our own head that it is almost impossible to hear anything else. Yeah I am listening to you, but not really, I am really thinking about the next thing I am going to say. I am listening to you, but not really, because even though you know an awful lot about this, deep down my egotistical brain still thinks I know better. I am listening, but not really because even though you just showed the technique in perfect detail three times, and I swore I was really paying attention, somehow when it was my turn to drill it…


For the past two days I have been feeling sick; an obvious side effect of spending so much time getting breathed on by small, germy children. This morning I was feeling much better, but not well enough for BJJ, so I decided to go to a yoga class instead. Turns out I was not quite well enough because about halfway through class my body was like, "Hey you, sick girl, you are kind of tired, this feels kind of yucky actually. How about you spend some time in child's pose instead."
As a lifelong athlete I am really, really good at getting messages from my body. I am less skilled, however, at actually following them.
This was not a difficult yoga class. But for me, today, it was impossible. My brain really did not like that. As I sat there with my eyes closed, breathing, the ever helpful voice in my head was saying things like "Everyone must think I am so weak. The teacher must think there is really something wrong with me. I should push through anyway. This is pathetic.&qu…

Roller Coaster

Its the roller coaster that gets me. The fact that you are just going along, doing your work, slowly climbing up, everything is going exactly according to plan, then Zoom!, down you go, fast, maybe not all the way to the bottom again, maybe somewhere halfway, but man you got there FAST! And now here we go again, back on the slow climb.
Some days it feels like you are doing everything right, you are busting your ass to accomplish all of your goals in every way that you know how, yet things just aren't going the way you want them to. On those days it is easy to get angry at the world. Don't you see I am doing my best here? Don't you see how hard I am working? OMG just get the f&*k out of my way! Stop asking for more of me! Can't you see I don't have any more??
But the thing is, that down part, it is on the track. It is part of the ride. it has always been a part of the ride. We knew if was coming, we could see it at the top of the long climb up. We didn't know…