In his books on Tang Soo Do, Grandmaster Shin wrote that the ultimate goal of the Tang Soo Do practitioner was to become one with nature. "The ultimate goal of Tang Soo Do is to live in perfect harmony with the laws of nature. To become one with nature is what we strive to attain. To understand, appreciate, and apply these laws is our goal." For me, training outdoors is a small step towards this goal. Training in all elements, on different surfaces and terrains and avoiding natural obstacles gives me a better feeling for the art, forcing me to think and rethink about what I know.
My instructor instilled this way of thinking in me very early in my training. In fact, my first outdoor training class was in my first month of training. In January. Barefoot.
What I remember most of the experience was how badly I tried to fight it. My feet were cold and sore as there was a thick layer of ice above the snow. Once you cracked that, my already sensitive feet were treated to being poked by sticks and rocks on the ground. It was all I could really think about at the time. My instructor insisted that we continue our training, repeating the same basic form over and over.
Then something interesting happened: my instructor yelled at us. Actually, that happened all the time, especially in the early days. The yelling wasn't so important, but what he yelled. "You guys are lucky" he said "you can distract yourself with the form; I'm the one standing still in the same ice and snow watching you."
At that point I noticed that he wasn't shivering, not jumping up and down, just standing perfectly calm outside the University Library at 8:30 on a Thursday night, barefoot in the snow and ice, watching a bunch of misfits in pajamas stumble through a basic hyung. We did a few more forms, and it was a little easier. I won't pretend that I was able to magically block everything out.
About a year or 2 later the club went camping. In an eerie reminder of my Scouting days, it rained most of the weekend. While hiking in a gorge, we came across a stream with a felled tree laying across it. It was on that log that I first learned Naihanchi Cho Dan. While most of us wobbled like newborn deer learning to walk, none of us fell into the water. My instructor demonstrated the form with little to no adjustment, moving full speed across this wet log in the rain.
A few years later, I was reading the Hagakure and came across this passage:
"There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. By doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to all things.”
Forgive my stumbling nostalgia as I struggle to stay on point. A great deal of training outdoors helps you to cope with struggles. It is much easier to stay in the dojang, preferably one with a polished wood floor, mirrors and a few overhead fans. Take yourself out of that comfort zone, and you begin to learn what you really know about balance, stability and endurance.
Of course, not all aspects of training outdoors are harsh. Obviously there is great beauty to train among, whether a morning fog, along water, near a prairie or the woods in autumn. In his books, David Lowry recalls his instructor would take time before beginning their outdoor training to find a special bit of natural beauty to set his sword alongside.
As the seasons begin to change, take the opportunity to train outdoors: even if just to meditate. Find what there is to learn about yourself.