A big aspect of successfully training alone is getting use to doing without; without equipment, without mats, without sparring partners, without a sensei. Since these are all very useful, we often work hard to replace them in one manner or another. But, there is one training tool that I do not recommend replacing at all and you probably started your day looking at it.
Mirrors. If you have spent any time in most American dojos, you have spent time looking at yourself in one of the wall length mirrors that line the space. Mirrors are widely used as a tool for visual feedback. You can watch yourself and correct your posture, your foot position, your telegraphing of techniques. But once you are out on your own in a park, or your garage, it is hard to get used to not having that feedback.
But, despite seeming useful, mirrors are also very misleading. Who should you be looking at while doing technique? – Your imaginary opponent. And where should your focus be during a kata? – Right in front of you. When we spend time looking at ourselves in the distance, or over our shoulder, or off to one side, we actually alter the very things we are trying to correct. How, for instance, can we correct our head position if we have to turn our head to see how we are doing? And mirrors are addictive. We become so used to seeing ourselves that we start to rely on that visual reinforcement to know whether our form is correct. Instead, we should train to feel the correctness within our own bodies. Giving up the mirror creates a visual void and forces us to make these corrections by “listening” to our own bodies.
Test yourself. Stand at attention or assume a posture such as a seisan stance (front stance). Without looking down, correct your feet, your hips, your knees. Now look down and see how you did. This is where we discover bad habits – things that feel right but aren’t, and need correcting. Now step into another stance and repeat the process. The goal is to step into a correct stance, by feel alone, and not need to make any changes when you eventually look down.
If you want an additional challenge, see how well you understand angles and directions without visual markers. Close your eyes and run through your kata. Are you where you should be when you open them at the end? If not, why not? Learning to feel the difference between turning 45 and 90 degrees is critical to understanding your own body dynamics. If you have a tendency to over or under rotate, you will make the same mistakes in a fight. And remember, the front of the room in a fight is not a wall full of mirrors, but whatever, or whoever, is in front of you at that moment.
In the end, developing good habits and learning what they feel like, is a major step in one’s development as a martial artist. And whether by necessity or not, this kind of training is best done alone. I still recommend mirrors for shaving, applying makeup, and combing your hair but, for martial arts training, leave your reflection at home.