Membership is important. By that, I mean not only becoming a member of a dojo to practice and study with an actual sensei, but also joining your regional (and national) martial arts associations.
There are a lot of people out there who may not have access to a sensei or school in the style that they wish to study. For example, I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of kenjutsu schools and classes available in Central North Dakota. So what do those people do if they really want to study? Buy books and watch videos? You Tube?
I think that while these may be good sources for review, it’s pretty difficult for anyone to truly learn from this kind of media. The personal attention, small corrections in stance, hand work, and basic techniques can only be truly learnt from your sensei and constant monitoring / corrections.
Being a member of a dojo also brings other benefits as well. You’re part of a community of people (friends) who have a common interest (dare I say passion?) for something, and can support each other.
In my dojo, I am using the “senpai – kohai” philosophy that is common in not only martial arts, but education and work practices throughout Japan. The senior “senpai” assists and takes responsibility for their junior “kohai” during practice. If they notice some aspect of the kohai’s stance, technique, or etiquette that needs correction, they will assist in that. Kohai are encouraged to ask their senpai any simple questions that can be easily answered and are not necessary to go to the sensei about. Of course, as head instructor, I encourage anyone to come to me any time with their questions, but sometimes students can ask very simple things of their senpai and get a quicker answer if I’m tied up with another group.
So how do people who want to study and not have access to a dojo or instructor go about receiving instruction? That’s a hard one to answer. I know people in Japan who sometimes traveled for an hour or two on the train to get to their dojo, practiced for a couple of hours, and then rode back again. It wasn’t uncommon to see them do that twice a week. They were dedicated, and the commute wasn’t an issue.
I know the first place I’d look to see if there was anybody qualified to teach kendo or iaido would be the All US Kendo Federation web site. There’s a comprehensive list of dojo by region in there along with the contact information. There are also links to the regional sites as well. Our dojo is a member of the Midwest Kendo Federation. By going through these associations, you are guaranteed to receive quality instruction from a legitimate sensei.
Another option if you are unable to attend a dojo, would be to contact the closest dojo’s head instructor and inquire about private lessons, or possibly meeting at a midpoint somewhere on a weekly basis. It may be possible that an instructor would come halfway if there were a guaranteed number of students available to teach. Just a thought.
I encourage anyone interested in studying martial arts to go and shop around for dojo. Not all are the same – and not all instructors are the same or even the best qualified to teach. It seems in some systems that all you need is a “black belt” to open your own school. I wouldn’t settle for that, and serious practitioners shouldn’t either. Getting your black belt means simply that you’ve put in enough time to begin seriously studying.
Good luck, and remember membership IS important.