Well, let’s reverse-engineer this and list some things of concern pertaining to the martial arts world that may be equally-prevalent in cults or may hint at the fact your academy is bordering on cultish:
- You’re not allowed, either intimated or openly stressed, to train at any other clubs or any other systems or there’ll be repercussions: belts stripped, “excommunicated” from the club, rankings revoked, your training stops or is restricted.
- Other ideas, concepts, methods of performing techniques are met with stern disapproval as they’re not in-line with the set curriculum or methodology of the system/style/instructor/lineage. (Freedom of thought and experimentation should be a huge part of the martial journey – developing our own thought process of evaluation and filters is part of the self-evolution)
- You are required to bow and call the instructor by his title (and these titles are getting more and more ludicrous by the generation – Grand Master Supreme, anyone?), even when talking outside a training environment in social settings. (He/she can’t separate one identity from the other. I knew an aikido instructor who was so consumed by his training identity, his wife was actually scared of him outside the club and admitted so. His persona transferred to their relationship and the construct of power balance – it was an abusive relationship.)
- Your instructor crosses the boundaries of his/her expertise and starts becoming a mountaintop guro, business advisor, career counsellor, psychologist/therapist simply because of his/her position of stature within the club dynamic. (Outside of scope of instructor’s level of knowledge. While advice from personal experience is one thing, giving professional advice outside of our sphere of knowledge pertaining to serious life decisions affected by potentially outside-of-our-knowing intangibles is not)
- Great investments, either financial or time, are required early-on. (I was once part of a club that demanded one-year’s tuition and contract signed in advance sight unseen, extra for secret behind closed-door training that was above-and-beyond and recommended if you “really wanted to advance”, no watching classes prior to signing up, no family members inside the club or able to view classes)
- On that note, the practices of the club are “secretive” and not for the public eye. Lots of “closed-door” practices are promoted. (We live in perhaps the most oversaturated time of information in recorded history. There are simply no secrets any longer, all information is readily available to inevitably anyone. “Secret” is a marketing gimmick, nothing more.)
- You find you have trouble separating your personality from the training or “your style.” I’m a karateka, a judoka, an aikidoka, an arnisador, etc. (You are you, not your rank, and have a distinct identity apart from the club, your style, your system or your title)
- Your ranks carry-over into your day-to-day. You identify yourself so innately with your title that it’s even listed on social media in front of your name.
- The instructor starts making unwelcome advances either sexually, socially, religiously, politically or otherwise from a position of power towards the student body or members thereof. Individual members are isolated with private meetings, personal attention, unwanted extra-curricular communication, inappropriate physical contact. A subtle recommendation to their way of thinking.
- You start becoming more and more isolated from the outside people in your life and your social activities are progressively surrounded by solely people from the club or academy-based activities. (A lead-in to groupthink)
- Rankings and titles dictate specific order of control to the point liberties are taken, either physically, verbally or psychological through isolation, derision or punishment.
- Upon leaving the club, you’re called out and badmouthed to the internal community as being a “traitor” or “disloyal”
- The instructor continually screams, yells and issues orders that he/she clearly is not following themselves. (elitism and clear superiority)
- The student is expressly made to believe that any open questioning on functionality (technique, for instance) or lack of understanding of direction is disrespectful, out-of-line or worse, blasphemous or mutinous.
- Peer pressure to do things one is unprepared for or uncomfortable with on a psychological, moral, ethical or emotional level, outside of scope of justified training for learning progression.
- The student feels his/her well-being is at risk from constant physically-unnecessary and potentially-injurious training. (Bullying, club chain-of-command, one-way impact abuse where the instructor inflicts but never receives)
- You find that situations you would otherwise have handled in a calm and controlled manner previously, are now handled with an eye toward utilizing violence. Greater aggression, hostility, volatility and reactiveness are present after training has started.
- The club is considered clearly-superior to all others, that nothing else is needed by the student and everything they’re searching for can be provided at this one place.
- More and more ridiculous claims and practices are implemented by the instructor. Chi knockouts, telepathy, mind control, special abilities, no-touch control, etc. all come to mind in this vein.
- Demonstrations that look they’re influenced by hypnotism, suggestion, magic trick or influence to create a mythic or indestructible reputation of the instructor and higher-ranked students.
Now, admittedly, some of these may well be acceptable of their own volition or independently. When all of these or a vast majority are omnipresent, there is an innate problem internally within the club and it starts to look very parallel to the cult stereotype. Very subtle in nature so one has to have a clear vision of what’s transpiring and ask internal questions for a normalcy baseline, which is often extremely difficult to do when absolute power and subtle manipulation is present, all in the name of tradition, fraternity, ego and order are driving forces.