‘Sacred Spaces – The place where one practises the way’
by Anna Glover – Chang’s Hapkido Academy UK, 2nd dan
As the Head of Safety in a theatre, one of my favourite aspects of my job is to attend a meeting in which a director will talk about their aspirations for a production they are about to put on, what the production will be about and what the themes might be. Many of these meetings are very scarce on detail; much of this will come out in the rehearsal process. They tend to focus on why the director wants to direct this particular play or work with that particular theme. The main purpose is for the director to see our faces and know they are supported and heard. However I was privileged the other day to hear a director speak candidly about how she likes to work, about her process. This is almost unprecedented; directors can be fiercely private about their methods. Amongst the secrets this director revealed was that one of the most important things for her was the way the rehearsal room is treated.
For this director, the rehearsal room is a very profound space, a sacred space, and needs to be respected. Everyone who enters the room must acknowledge that they have become part of the process, in whatever that capacity may be. Once the rehearsal begins, people are not allowed to wander in and out. They must wait for an appropriate break. Permission must be sought to enter from the stage managers who are in charge of the room while the director is working and people must wait outside until permission is granted.
Unusually, everyone must participate in the warm up. It is quite normal for the director and the actors to warm up with physical and vocal exercises while the stage management team sit at the edges writing notes or preparing props for the day. This director insists that everyone warms up together, so that everyone is involved and there is no hierarchy, between those who are allowed to warm up and those who are not.
Once the rehearsal has started, actors are not allowed to talk while others are working. Everyone is encouraged to focus on what is happening, to learn from watching if they are not directly involved in the action and not passively wait for their turn while checking their phones. Outside of the room actors and staff are asked not to talk too much about the production. Actors are allowed to talk a little, but the director felt that asking lots of questions that you are not ready to know the answers to yet didn’t help the discovery process.
As the director spoke, I realised that she was describing to some extent the Dojang that we train in, and that some of the philosophy she had mirrored our own training environment. It made me reflect on just how important that environment had become to me, over the last 13 years of training.
A Dojang is not a sports hall or a gym (though we may turn a gym or a sports hall into a Dojang). When we enter a gym we may be focussing on fitness, strength, stamina or just ourselves and whatever has brought us to the gym. I see people checking their phones, or even reading while they are on exercise bikes. I have enjoyed using the gym and I am fairly disciplined when training but it’s not the same. Do means ‘the way’ or ‘art’ and Jang is ‘a place’. So a Dojang is a place where one practises the way. When we enter the Dojang it is time to focus on Hapkido, or Ki class. Over the years I have enjoyed the discipline of this focus, as it means that I cannot think about anything else when I’m training. Whatever has worried me during my day does not stay with me once I am practising Hapkido, as there is no room for it. I have often heard of the phrase ‘Doctor Theatre’, to describe the healing powers of going on stage when you feel ill and being able to perform as if you are fine. The same can happen in the Dojang. You can walk in feeling stressed, worried, ill, unfocused and somehow start to feel rejuvenated during the warm up. I believe that this is partly to do with crossing a physical threshold into the Dojang, our place of practise. We become so involved in training that we forget we feel anything else.
The Dojang is a very simple place. It is free from advertising, music, tv screens and, well, ‘stuff’. Yet it is one of the most stimulating places I have ever been in. Through the lectures of Grand Master Chang and Master Parlour I have heard the secrets to a fulfilling life discussed. I have faced my fears on the mat, been exhausted and felt inexhaustible. I have failed and succeeded. I believe I have learnt more about myself in that empty room than I ever would in a room full of books and computers. I wonder if this absence of external stimuli allows me to think more clearly and see what is really there. The same is true of a rehearsal room, they are barren places but what comes out of them can be truly remarkable.
Like a rehearsal room, the Dojang is an incredibly supportive place. When I am training I know I can try out skills, learn, get things wrong, and practise without fear of judgement as we are all training together. When I am not on the mat actually doing Hapkido it is my responsibility to pay attention to what is happening, as I am still participating. We practise active watching. We don’t lean against the walls or chat idly as that can be distracting for the people on the mat. When we are sparring others hold the mats together for us or push them in. It’s an atmosphere conducive to working hard because you feel that everyone is involved.
Unlike a rehearsal room, Master Parlour does not start each lesson with a list of the rules of the Dojang, and they are not written up on the wall. Instead we pass on correct etiquette through our actions. We don’t swear, drink or eat in the Dojang. We ask permission to leave. We all put mats out and take care of them, and when they are broken we are responsible for mending them. We bow when we enter and when we leave. We don’t pick up weapons that we haven’t been trained to use until we are told we can.
For me, this is what makes our place of practise so special. The way we respect our place is learnt through continual gently reinforcement, which happens every time we step foot in the Dojang. We can all contribute to a culture of excellence. If I was able to replicate such teamwork in my organisation I would have a wonderful safety culture. We call it organisational citizenship. The director I spoke of in the beginning sees it as her role to impose this on the room. I am so thankful to train in an environment where this is instead brought into the room by everyone who trains there. When a white belt starts training with us they watch the people in the room closely to see what the culture of the room is. By our actions each one of us reinforces the special place that is the Changs Hapkido Academy Dojang, which is a truly wonderful place to train, and is for me a sacred space.
This article was written by Anna Glover, Chang’s Hapkido Academy 2nd Dan.
Read another article written by one of our London martial arts students. The power of deliberate practice.