Noah Landow is a 42-year-old consultant and founder of @Macktez. He’s also a practitioner and instructor of Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu Takumakai — a very specialized form of Japanese martial arts. Noah’s journey contains a few compelling themes; the first theme relates to the importance of mentors and teachers. You’ll see that Noah’s journey in martial arts has been heavily influenced by a leader and friend that he deeply respects and admires. The second theme piggybacks on the first a bit — it’s about how a belief in someone, or something, greater than ourselves can be the thing that helps us persevere through difficulties, trials, and setbacks. Pursuing physical goals is much like pursuing any other life goal — the road to success is not a straight line and is sometimes uncomfortable and frustrating, but placing a purpose behind that goal is the key to fulfillment.
WB: Tell me a little bit about how you came into this practice.
NL: The full formal name of what I train in is “Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu Takumakai.”
In the most general terms, I practice “aikijujutsu,” which is best known in the west by it’s two descendants “aiki” (most widely known in association with Aikido) and “jujutsu” (popularized in the US through Brazilian Jujitsu).
The first word refers to a specific type of aikijujutsu, and literally translates as “Great Eastern School.”
And lastly “Takumakai,” or the branch of that school, translates roughly to “House of Takuma,” from Takuma Hisa.
This is a type of old, pre-war Japanese martial art called a “Koryu,” but this specific branch is unusual, in part because of the numerous very high level teachers (or “Shihan”) with wide-ranging differing interpretations, styles, and ways of executing the techniques while still exploring the same principles — varied to such a degree that an outsider looking at the training is frequently confused; beyond the basic techniques (or “waza”), many are unable to tell techniques apart. Teachers’ versions of a technique may look remarkably different, with different footwork, even different hand positions.
But, back to my story, and how I came to train and teach in this esoteric discipline. This chapter of my story begins when I began training under an exceptional martial artist, and even more remarkable person, named Rodrigo Kong.
He began studying when he quite young, and had already been training for nearly two decades when we met at a dinner party in the late nineties. He mentioned that after a couple of years of exploring NYC’s dojos, and finding some wonderful people, he’d nontheless decided to start his own group and go back to teaching. A few months later, I showed up at his class and have never stopped; initially they were just a few of us training together and the group has grown and shrunk, and shifted focus a few times, but always been under Kong Sensei.
WB: How did you first get into martial arts at all, as a young person?
NL: I have a very sort of vague memory of being in summer camp when I was probably 8, and signing up for karate or something. I don’t remember very much about the actual training but I do remember this meditation exercise: we would lie down and walk through a relatively common exercise, but as a kid I was fascinated by the idea of trying to relax. It was uncomfortable and weird, but also really interesting. I remember coming back from that summer camp and started looking around for different dojos and eventually ending up in Okinowan style called Shotokan Karate Ryu. I ended up studying that for about five years, before I went to college, ending at the rank of third degree brown, the last before a black belt. My parents, and briefly my sister, actually trained with me; my parents actually recently went back and started doing it again, awesomely!
Earlier, as a young kid, I never found myself able to engage in activity for its own sake. I played a little bit of baseball, but mostly soccer when I was younger; at one point I played three seasons a year. What I enjoyed most was the focused purpose and I was quite aggressive, playing the position of center defense, the last line of defense in a triple diamond pattern. In hindsight, I must have been quite intense to play against on the field.
I first came to martial arts after losing interest in soccer. My high school team did not have a culture I liked, and so I stopped playing. When I started studying karate, I found a group of people that I had a lot of respect for, but also felt like there was an ideology and purpose, something larger there. The head of that dojo was a remarkable man named Danny Paquette, and he brought a very empowering and healing perspective to training.
In college I explored but never found anything I was drawn to. I tried the gym and running but, much like when I was younger, exercise for it’s own sake never resonated with me. So I was idle for many years until I met Kong Sensei. At first I trained under him in a complex Filipino family style, for about five years, again reaching the last rank before black belt. He had encountered Dairo-Ryu by then, and devoted some time to exploring it; we eventually focused on it, and the dojo and I transitioned along with him.
WB: What’s been your trajectory with this particular practice, in terms of learning it, becoming accustomed to it, because it sounds very challenging!
NL: Most of my time training, frankly, I have not enjoyed the actual experience. I have moments of great pleasure and gratification, but the first three or four years I would have a stiff neck after every class. We would do these break falls and rolls, which I was just terrible at; initially we even did them on hard wood floors. That was not pleasant.
So I spent most of my time in this training not really enjoying the moment, but I did like feeling sore after, and having done it, and found the conceptual side intriguing, but really what kept me going back again and again was a personal loyalty to Rodrigo Kong Sensei. I was simply drawn to his exceptional skill, inspired by his focus and power, and amazed by his kind modesty. So I just kept showing up. I spent years thinking to myself, “This is terrible. I’m not flexible enough for this, I’m too stiff and I just don’t have the right body for this.” But I kept going out of a combination of dumb stubbornness, personal loyalty, and little glimpses, moments of amazing things.
It was interesting to look back now, so many years later and realize “Hm. I can actually do that technique rather well now.” At almost no moments did I ever think, “Hey I’m getting good at this” — I just put my head down and slogged on, day after day. It was only looking back, after years of doing it, would I catch myself thinking, “This is not so bad.”
Rodrigo is now one of my oldest friends, and we consider each other friends as much as teacher and student. In hindsight, I was either very lucky or clever to find him. I don’t think I could have picked a better person to devote this kind of time and energy into.
WB: How do you feel about your level of personal and mental fitness after doing this particular practice for about 10 years as opposed to before you started this practice?
NL: About fifteen years ago my sister and I moved in together and we talked a lot about how to actually be good roommates and not drive each other crazy — like how were we going to handle dishes and keeping the house clean without getting on each others’ nerves. And among those discussions, we talked a lot about how we were running around and grabbing kind of crappy food. So we started doing small things like keeping Clif bars around and trying to eat reasonable portions of things when we were hungry.
Those conversations were really helpful, in that they helped me to understand that small choices made every day over the long term add up enormously more than grand gestures done only for a short while. Just not eating a cheese danish for breakfast every day for a year is way more effective than trying to have any ideal breakfast, and failing after a month or two.
WB: Are there any rituals or things that you do to keep yourself in a healthy and good balanced mind, and body space?
NL: If I were going to choose the activities that are most helpful, as I age, it’d be improved posture, breathing, and relaxing. I have had naturally terrible posture most of my life. So CJ [my wife] and I try to call each other out on it, be more conscious of it when we see the other slouching.
There’s also an element to this style of martial arts that requires calming your mind and clearing your head and being really present. There are days where I might be getting into an argument at work or an argument in my personal life or something, and I try to apply that, to shift back, refocus my attention on posture or breathing.
The point is to recognize that you’re here right now and you have to think about what you can do to modify, take a step back, say “Hey, I need a second.”
WB: What are some words of wisdom you’d offer to anybody who is trying to be more consistent with healthy behaviors in their lives?
NL: Finding an external motivating factor, like a person who inspires you, and who you’d feel guilty about if you’re let down, was helpful for me.
But, I also don’t think it really matters whether you train really well when you show up; I think that’s vastly less important than just showing up. There are times you might be like, “Well, I’m not really in the right head space or really tired; I’m going to do a terrible job.” Some of it’s about keeping up the habit, and some is that even moving terribly still has some beneficial quality — you’re still going to get better even if you hadn’t shown up at all.