Training in the Bushido Spirit, Tom Muzila


Tom Muzila’s Marathon Approach.

Interview conducted by Ian C. Blair M.A. Training, May 1989.

“As a kid, I was always interested in
becoming a stronger : human being, both
physically and mentally. I was constantly
putting myself in situations where I was

In Kyoto, Japan, there is a temple known as the Sanjusan-Gendo (Hall of the 33 Pillar Spans). On the the temple’s western side is a veranda 128 yards long and 16 feet high In the year 1686, samurai warrior Wada Daihachi succeeded in shooting 8,133 arrows from one end of the veranda to the other, from sunrise to sunrise, averaging five arrows a minute in a 24-hour period.

Mental discipline and self-effacement were central elements in the samurai culture of feudal Japan. In martial training, the bushido ethic stressed self-control and endurance as a stepping-stone to transcendence. Stories abound of samurai practicing tens of thousands of consecutive sword techniques for days on end in order to test their weapons, bodies and minds.

Tom Muzila continues to keep the bushido spirit alive with his own marathon approach to martial arts training. A former Green Deret, skydiver, world-class mountain climber and fourth-degree Shotokan Karate of America black belt under Tsutomu Ohshima, Muzila regularly undertakes and completes nearly superhuman training sessions.

Along with the successful completion of over 50 of Ohshima’s own notoriously grueling training camps, Muzila has executed 10,000 Heian kata (forms) continuously for seven hours and has executed 10,000 squats while holding a traditional japanese eight-pound iron cannonball weight. If any doubt remains about Muzila ‘s intensity, he’s also added to these accomplishments with recent sessions of 14,000 continuous front kicks (mae geri), 10,000 reverse punches (gyaku zuki) and 24 hours of continuous front punching (oi zuki).

Best known as the innovator behind the Body Volving fitness program and as a columnist for BLACK BELTmagazine, Muzila recently completed several firewalks near his home in Southern Califomia, giving furtherproof that this is no ordinary ex-Green Beret, skydiving, shotokan black belt.

M.A. TRAINING executive editor Ian C. Blair recently caught up with Muzila to discuss training for the martial arts, confronting fear and pain and pushing human performance to higher levels.

M.A. TRAINING: What first got you started on the path toward confronting and breaking down your personal limits through marathon training sessions?

TOM MUZILA: As a kid, I was always interested in becoming a stronger human being, both physically and mentally. I was constantly putting myself into situations where I was challenged. That was where it started, but my experience as a Green Beret really coalesced everything I’d been moving toward. I had originally received orders to go to Vietnam but they pulled me back and I received new orders to go to South America. I thought it was just going to be a training session in Panama or something. No one knew that it was going to be a top-secret anti-insurgency operation in Bolivia. Once I got down there and realized how covert the operation was, it became obvious that if something happened to me, no one would ever really know. The military would have disavowed any knowledge of our presence there, they probably would have called-it a training accident. So it became a situation where I had to confront the reality of death on a daily basis. My tour of duty in Bolivia was really a 100-percent commitment, like jumping into a black hole not knowing if it was one foot deep or 100-feet deep. It was the first time I’d really had to integrate all of the elements I’d been working toward.

MAT: Once your experience in Bolivia with the Green Berets was behind you, how did you become interested in a marathon approach to training for the martial arts?

TM: Prior to my training experience, I was doing a lot of weightlifting and short-span, explosive strength training. I didn’t care about a long -distance approach as far as training in karate was concerned. But my Green Beret experience forced me to change completely. Now I was hiking through jungles for days or weeks on end, going through intense military training sessions, only getting two or three hours of sleep a night, going full-on 18-20 hours a day. And still having to think, to analyze, to incorporate strategy into patrols. That basically set the stage to do long-distance training. I was also inspired at the time by speaking with Ohshima who told me stories of ancient samurai training, where they’d do 50-day training sessions, or ten-day sessions, going 12 hours a day. That really got my interest up, especially about the mental side of what long-distance training could do.

MAT: Do you feel that marathon training sessions are really a practical aspect of martial arts training, that can be integrated into virtually any school or training center?

TM: Definitely. First, however, students have to be inquisitive about it, they have to want to do it and they have to understand the value of doing it before undertaking a long-distance session. Like any technique, they have to want to do it. If you force them to do it, they’ll do 10,000 punches, let’s say, and they’ll just sort of walk through it. They could do 100 and get much more out of them given the appropriate mental state.

MAT: How can a relative beginner or novice get into the same spirit of smashing personal limitations that you’ve cultivated if they’re not immediately able to execute 10,000 consecutive reverse punches standing on the slopes of Mount Whitney?

“Students have to be inquisitive about marathon training, they have to want to do it and they have to understand the value of doing it before undertaking a long-distance session. ”
– “I was inspired by Ohshima who told me stories of ancient samurai training, where they’d do 50-day training sessions, or ten-day sessions, going 12 hours a day. That really got my interest up.”

TM: In a basic or beginner’s training session just as in a marathon session the most important objective is to get control of their concentration. Most people go through practice and training just stepping through their moves and all of this junk is going on in their minds as they block, reverse punch and so forth. They’re not in control of their mind they’re letting all of this external stimuli be in control. How you focus on and execute the most basic drills in the dojo is very important. Just as in a long-distance session, you must focus and concentrate, and then really work hard on keeping that concentration. It sounds simple, but it’s actually very tough: to prevent a single gap, a single lapse in your concentration as you’re going through the beginner’s forms or your training drills. But this is cultivating the foundation that the marathon training is built on.

MAT: You made an excellent observation recently when you were quoted as saying, “The real point of marathon training is not endurance but concentration, where every single technique has to be your best, like the last one you do before you die.”

TM: Exactly. The marathon training approach has to be used as a vehicle for concentration, not just grunt endurance. You are striving to hold one point of focus, breathing and focusing like a laser beam. I’ve noticed that with older, advanced black belts, older karateka, the longer they practice, the deeper their concentration gets. “Deeper” just means less influenced by external stimuli, including your opponent. It’s tough, because even if you think you’re concentrating strongly, your opponent may have even stronger concentration. Everyone knows that to acquire anything in the martial arts, you must practice. . Concentration is just the same. In order to acquire and build concentration, you’ve got to practice it.

MAT: How do you handle the element of fear such as the fear of injury or fear of failure in your marathon training sessions?

TM: First of all, you have to recognize that you do have a fear. Then you’ve got to identify what it is, where it came from where you acquired the fear. Then you might even consider if there are any benef its in holding on to this fear. Finally, you’ve got to understand what benefits you are going to reap from getting rid of the fear. You’ve got to visualize in your mind what kind of world is going to open up for you by overcoming this fear.
So if you can see the fear, recognize it and follow through in roughly that order, with that process, then you’ve got a very good chance.of getting out from under that fear.

MAT: But people confront and deal with fear in any number of ways, definitely not in-the step-by-step way you’ve just out lined.

TM: Of all of the ways people deal with fear by running away from it, for example, or by wallowing in it or by doing a John Wayne macho thing with it the way that will be the most constructive is the one in which a person sees their fear, gets close to,it, but doesn’t let it go to their emotions. Whether it’s fear of getting beaten in a point-fighting tournament, fear of performing a difficult kata, fear of heights, whatever. It’s the way of being in your conscious mind, recognizing the fear but not letting it get to the point where it just overwhelms you and takes control of you. Because you must be in control.
You’ve just got to use your breathing, collect yourself; don’t let your breathing get carried away. Use it to calm your mind so that-you can say, “Hey, this is fear . . . it sure is. And I’m just going to try to sit in it but not let it control me, to find out what it feels like to be in it, without whining or crying about it.” That’s the key that leads to understanding, “Now how can Y get out from under it?” What you really want to do is analyze the hell out of your fear.

MAT: What’s the role of coach or teacher in this process?

TM: The best way to get out from under fear is to just face it, but to face it with a guide or instructor or teacher there that can pull you along. So that you can see that this person maybe had the same fear before and they got through it. This person climbed the mountain or walked over the fire and you understand that yes, it is humanly possible to do it.

MAT: Let’s say a young martial artist is at a tournament and realizes that he’s scheduled to fight the same guy who really walloped him the last time. How do you apply your theory of fear control to this very real scenario?

TM: Number one, this is where the benefits of Zen can be incorporated. One of the primary aspects of karate and the martial arts as a whole is that as soon as your mind becomes attached to your opponent or on to your objective or your goal, that becomes the only thing you can see. It becomes imprisoned in your mind. So if you faced this guy before and he thumped you soundly and you start to dwell on him, your mind becomes more attached to the identity and not the object. This should be just another opponent, and in the here and now, he hasn’t done anything yet. As soon as your mind gets attached to this individual, this opponent, his name, the memory of him beating you before, then your mind becomes imprisoned. That’s all it sees and the whole thing is definitely going to happen again.
You should try to shut down the inner turmoil of your thoughts at this point. That’s why meditation is so important. For someone who doesn’t know any advanced meditation techniques, what I’d recommend is simply to concentrate on your breathing, in order to calm that inner garble and relax.

MAT: Along with fear, there’s also a large degree of pain in training, particularly in your marathon sessions. How do you know when to push through pain and when to respect it and listen to it?

TM: There are two types of pain. I guess you could call them positive pain and negative pain. When you’re stretching a muscle and you feel the pain and you say, “Well, I’ll just push through it,” and you tear it, that’s stupid, ridiculous. There’s a progressive way to do it, and there’s a progressive way to face your pain on a larger level. It’s just practice and experience to understand when you’re benefitting from pain and when you’re about to injure yourself. That’s just something that comes from experience and from having a teacher overseeing you.

Your mind is so sensitive about shielding you from pain. That’s why in karate we have attacks that are real and certain attacks that are controlled. Because two people could just go out there and beat the hell out of each other and then their minds start to become inhibited from the pain of the beating. Too much full-contact makes you overly concerned with protection and too attached to the equipment. It also can inhibit you from experimenting with new techniques because you’re thinking, “Oh no, I can’t do that because I’m really getting tagged with that side kick and it hurts.” Again, when you face pain, it’s very important to do it in a progressive way.