How to Learn Martial Arts: Dan Inosanto’s lessons live on

It’s only been a few weeks since Guro Dan Inosanto’s seminar at Kombat Arts and I’ve already forgotten most of what he taught. That’s one of the charms of an Inosanto seminar; the info comes swiftly, quickly, and in volumes. It’s an approach, though, that JKD students can understand. After decades of diving into a multitude of martial arts, mastering systems, picking and choosing techniques and seeing how they work together, Guro Dan has probably forgotten more about martial arts than he currently knows. And he currently knows an astonishing amount.

“Pick the techniques you have a high percentage with,” he said to the packed gym of attentive students from across Ontario (and a few from beyond). “When is it to your advantage to use it? When is it to your disadvantage?”

Guro Dan shows you a lot to let you see options and make choices. The techniques you walk away with are still many, and even more, they’re yours.

Guro Dan Inosanto with Kombat's Martin Duncan

Clad mostly in his no-nonsense, all-black Inosanto Academy gear and sporting a bright new-ish pair of Nike Shox, Guro Dan adeptly illustrated and embodied the bridge between martial arts’ past and future. Throughout both days he showed old photographs and talked about how traditional arts traveled from nation to nation and were modified along the way.

“Every 10 years, martial arts changes,” he said. “Believe me. It’s changing right now.”

Guro Dan Inosanto with Kombat's Mike Blake

Modestly, he never pointed out that he himself has been a driving force for the changes we’ve seen in martial arts over the past few decades. His friend and teacher, Bruce Lee, popularized the recent approach of cross-training and opened the door for modern MMA with his Jeet Kune Do. To the chagrin of some purists, Guro Dan has also modified and adapted his own personal JKD, adding elements of Filipino martial arts, Silat, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and more, and he encouraged us all to do the same.

“You can’t keep anything pure,” he said. “That’s the beauty of JKD.”

Guro Dan Inosanto with Kombat's Davinder Dhanoa

Several times he related martial arts to music, stressing that a good chunk of what is “good” and what isn’t is rooted in personal taste, and what constitutes your personal taste has to do with your own body type and the way you move. Yes, younger people can learn to use head kicks effectively, he said for example, but for older folks who might have hip problems or lower flexibility, those techniques make little sense. Neither one is right or wrong per se.

My favourite lesson learned over the weekend was, appropriately enough, a lesson about learning. “Everyone you come in contact with is your teacher,” Guro Dan said, later saying that he — in his 70s and already a living legend of martial arts — still has more learning to do ahead of him. A humbling and inspiring sentiment if ever there was one.

It means I have this many teachers and counting:

Guro Dan Inosanto at the Kombat Arts Training Academy

To see just a sliver of the techniques he covered, watch this clip from Burton Richardson, one of Guro Dan’s top shelf students and trainer to UFC fighter Chris Leben. The first day’s Jun Fan/JKD lesson began with a seemingly endless series of possible combos beginning and ending with a now tek lead leg kick as such:

Thanks again to everyone who came out for the seminar, especially those who put in the kilometers (I met one gentleman who drove all the way over from Ottawa!). Thanks to Rene Cocolo, Tyler Morin, GAMMA and the Toronto DBMA Group, the entire Kombat Arts staff, and my training partners Sifu Joey and Barry Lee. And of course, thanks to Guro Dan Inosanto. Despite my note-taking, I’ll forget a lot of the techniques I learned over the course of the weekend, maybe to encounter and re-learn them again further along in my learning journey. Mostly, it’s the overarching experience and lessons about learning that will stick with me for life.

“To this day, I stand in awe,” said Guro Dan about Bruce Lee’s skill. I know future instructors who got to train with Guro Dan will be saying the same thing about him in the future.