Practice During the Pandemic

Unless you were already living as a mountain hermit, you've had to adapt your martial arts practice because of COVID. The pandemic has impacted all of us in so many ways. It probably closed your school during one of last year's lockdowns. For those more unfortunate, hopefully not you, that closure has become permanent. On top of that, tournaments and workshops were cancelled all over the world. And on the most fundamental level, it's impossible to spar while maintaining six feet of social distance.

Nevertheless, regardless of your situation, your practice must never falter. And fortunately for us all, we are living in a time when there are plenty of outstanding martial arts resources available, more so than ever before. There is a tremendous selection of exceptional books and videos today, now all within easy reach. What's more, the internet has come to the rescue with an explosion of online teaching programs.

But Does Online Teaching Really Work?

YMAA Instructors Jonathan Chang and Michelle Lin have been teaching online since before the pandemic began. Jonathan was among the first disciples to participate in Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming's 10-year training program at the YMAA Retreat Center. Michelle was the first female to join the 5-year program a few years after Jon. In 2013, the twosome formed Barking Rabbit which provides online workshops, a virtual library, and live private lessons. So, when the pandemic struck, Barking Rabbit didn't have to scramble to figure out online teaching like most instructors. "The transition was pretty easy for us," admits Jon. "The big jump was taking on larger class sizes in comparison to the private and semi-private lessons we were already offering."

As online training blew up, the shift brought new challenges for everyone. Barking Rabbit's private lessons were geared more towards people seeking refinements for material they had already learned. For the new bigger classes, Jon and Michelle faced the task of teaching new material without being able to demonstrate the applications in person. "This forced us to work on our verbal communication more," explains Jon, "as it's difficult to pick up the more minute details from a screen." This dissemination process became a learning experience for them, too. Michelle elaborates. "I've become more aware of the micro-steps when transitioning between movements and it's critical to explain the details as they can be difficult to see on video." In this way, it deepened their own practice and understanding. Good teaching is always a shared journey between instructor and pupil.

The Pluses and Minuses of Going Virtual

Beyond the luxury of bringing lessons directly into the privacy of your own home, online teaching also offers you some precious flexibility. You can explore all sorts of options and have a record to reference later. You are not limited to your neighborhood school's class schedule like before. You can attend when you want and where you want. "Students can try classes taught by different teachers and choose the most suitable fit based on their schedule and interests," says Michelle. "Recordings of classes and workshops are valuable learning tools for both the student and teacher." This flexibility is tremendously powerful, especially when it comes to expanding the martial diaspora globally.

Whether it be a martial arts school or McDonalds, it's often said that there are three universally critical factors for the success of any brick-and-mortar facility: location, location, location. "For our students, some may not have had local instructors around before," explains Michelle. "They now have a means to practice with someone and receive guidance over the material they want to learn." This is where online teaching really shines. Remember that the two 'w's in www stand for 'worldwide' so location is no longer a limiting factor for online teaching and training. Jon expounds. "We now have students logging in from all over the world to take part in our classes and seminars. It's pretty exciting when someone from the opposite time zone joins in."

However, despite its advantages, online training is far from optimal. The absence of physical contact undermines any serious combat training. You can only get so far just practicing forms without testing the function on another human. "This limits what we can teach to solo material, unless any of our students have housemates that don't mind being practice dummies," says Jon, "We're lucky that there's two of us, so we can still occasionally demonstrate on each other."

"Another challenge is learning movements on a two-dimensional plane," adds Michelle. The medium itself is self-limiting. Watching a lesson on your smart phone just can't compare to the feeling of your instructor applying the new technique upon you directly. Nothing quite knocks a lesson home like that. For Michelle, it's another teaching moment. "This encourages teachers to become better communicators and the students to become better observers."

The biggest disadvantage of online training is the absence of school spirit. Group energy is contagious. There's nothing like a good session with your classmates when everyone is fired up, not just for the hands-on training and mutual encouragement, but also for the sharing and socializing. "Now everyone is in their own space looking at a screen," bemoans Jon. "The feeling is completely different. We do our best to regularly divide our students up into groups to interact with one another and to maintain that sense of community."

Learning and teaching online, Michele with staff
Photos courtesy of Jonathan Chang and Michelle Lin.

Who's Training Online Now?

Virtual classes have altered student bodies everywhere. Without in-person participation, many opted out. Prior to the pandemic, Jon and Michelle did not have their own brick-and-mortar school. Instead, they taught at different locations so their attendance benchmark as they shifted to online training might be different from school owners with their own facilities. Unlike them, Barking Rabbit wasn't hampered by ongoing school rent bills. However, just like every school, their attendance has gone in different directions with the virtual shift, depending largely upon the diversity of their classes.

When the pandemic struck, Jon and Michelle had just begun teaching kids, but attendance there dropped dramatically. Jon attributes this to the inordinate amount of time that kids must already spend online for their regular school and other extracurricular activities. Too much screen time for kids has been decried for years, but now there just aren't other options for many required activities, and it's clearly taking its toll on our kids. "By the time they'd log in for class, they would look so tired, almost zombie-like."

There's also been a division between the attendance of their external and internal students. "Shaolin students are much less inclined to take online classes," observes Michelle, "probably because they're accustomed to the classroom environment and physical contact. On the other hand, the online setting is more conducive to taiji and qigong classes because they require less space, don't require a partner, and can focus on theoretical teachings."

Overall, attendance and retention for Barking Rabbit has been strong, which may have been due to their high production values and attentiveness to detail. Not all schools that have ventured into online classes have fared as well. Having supportive students helps too. "We're grateful for our students recommending our classes to their friends," adds Michelle. "In some ways, online classes have exceeded our expectations. I'm constantly concerned about running out of ideas but that pressure forces us to be creative to keep students engaged. Some have been with us for almost a year that's a testament to their dedication."

Want to Train Online? Here's What You Need to Know.

"Patience is key." Jon clarifies. "Don't go into it expecting to learn at the same pace as in-person classes. It's a challenging format to work with on both sides." Being open minded is also important. Zoom was barely a thing prior to the pandemic, but now the web is making tremendous strides in how video connectivity functions over the web. Remember that the instructors are learning these new media platforms too, so be forgiving on technological difficulties. And just like with brick-and-mortar schools, many instructors offer a free trial, so it's a wonderful opportunity to shop around.

Learning and teaching online, Michele taichi
Photos courtesy of Jonathan Chang and Michelle Lin.

Michelle adds one more thing, "Connect your device to a large monitor if possible."

The absence of physical interaction means that augmenting your training is even more important than before. Jon explains. "Like with in-person sessions, books and videos should be used to supplement online learning as well. Published material can be great for better understanding theories on your own and can be used as reference material." Michelle adds that live online instruction and DVDs work in tandem. "Live instruction allows students to receive feedback on their form and have discussions. Instructional videos show the movements through different angles and at higher resolution compared to video conferences. Students can re-watch videos on their own time."

Just like with in-person classes, it's up to you to apply yourself. What you get out of your practice is always a result of what you put into it. "Students need to continue to practice regularly outside of the classroom in order to progress," lectures Jon, "but whether or not they do it is entirely up to them." So far, they are pleased with their results. "We've seen a lot of progress in many of our students," chimes Michelle enthusiastically.

Pushing the Online Envelope with the Virtual Camp

In January 2021, Jon and Michelle hosted the first YMAA International Virtual Camp. The project was a cumulation of ideas from YMAA instructors, community members, and participants. Even Dr. Yang contributed as a special guest instructor. The camp served as means for the YMAA community to reconnect, something we all need in these isolated times. "The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive," reports Michelle. The only critique was that the two 10-hour days weren't enough. The attendees wanted more.

But still, there's always room for improvement. If Jon and Michelle do something like this again, they hope to develop the camp's social facet somehow. "Socializing is one of the appealing parts of in-person camps," reveals Jon. "After training all day, students would hang out and play games together into the late hours of the night. Obviously, this part of camp is difficult to have in the virtual setting, but we're working on it."

What Happens When the Pandemic Ends?

We all long for the day when we can meet in person again to study, spar and socialize. For those schools that survive the pandemic, the return to normal classes is desperately needed to make rent again. While the less online savvy instructors will likely return to business as usual, Barking Rabbit plans to continue to develop its online offerings. "Online lessons have always been a part of our plan," explains Jon. "We don't want to take this option away from our distant learners, but we'd like to encourage our local students to be in-person as much as possible, when the situation permits."

And why not? As traditional martial arts struggle to perpetuate itself in modern times, it must engage these new media platforms fully to remain vital and viable. Centuries ago, the ancient masters adapted to new medium of the printing press by publishing martial treatises. And now, there are still some of us who are old enough to remember when videotapes were first introduced to mass market. How that changed everything. Every art, no matter how venerated, must strive to remain relevant to survive. This demands that we embrace every new means of communication so we might pass it on to the next generation.

Despite ample scientific warning, the pandemic took the world by surprise. Humanity has struggled to adapt to a changing world. Sometimes those adaptations mark a major evolutionary step, like the printing press, video, and now online communication. What the future brings next is anyone's guess. YMAA and Barking Rabbit strive to perpetuate and preserve authentic martial arts and boldly go into these new media frontiers.

"If I could change something," adds Michelle, "it would be to make holograms affordable for the average consumer."

To learn more from Jonathan Chang and Michelle Lin, visit Photos courtesy of Jonathan Chang and Michelle Lin.