Updated: Dec 19, 2018
John Hertlein has been living and training in Colorado for close to 30 years.
We caught up over a cup of coffee (that turned into a second pot...which I always take as a good sign in a conversation). We talked as the light changed on an early September morning, a cool breeze coming in through the open windows.
This time of year there always seems to be a little something extra in the air, as the seasons change again and the leaves begin to fall. As John discussed his life and training I couldn't help but notice that feeling of things to come begin to mingle with the conversation.
E: So, you and I know each other pretty well by now, but in the interest of our Rough Haus Audience could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
J: Well, I came to Colorado in 1985 with a friend of mine from Ohio named Jeff. This was at the height of the ninja boom and Jeff kept telling me all of these stories about the training he and his teacher were doing. Part of me didn't believe him, but mostly I just wanted to see what he was getting into. I met his teacher (Soke Randall Brown) on that trip. I knew before I left I would be back to train. We kept in touch through letters until the day I packed up what I had and headed out to Colorado, this time to stay. That was in 1988.
E: Can you describe the training a little bit? What was it about this that you were so drawn to?
J: The original training we did was outdoors. There was always such a strong connection to nature in the training and that created a really strong connection to the area. You know the way that artists use light to effect mood? Well every day in nature has that artistic element to it. There was always more to it than just working out. Every day and every season holds something new. Outside your perception is different. The environment is a huge factor, from balance to the way the horizon line changes your spacial awareness and your movement. Gyms and even dojos are ultimately designed to be obstacle free. But removing the obstacles also changes the reality of the way you train, and your relationship to the training.
E: It sounds like the unexpected elements of the outdoors plays a pretty significant part in how you train, is that true?
J: Absolutely. It actually has a really significant impact on your brain, the extraneous nature of the training helps to increase neuroplasticity in the brain. You have more and varied input coming at you, and a lot less control over what you will encounter. The variability makes a really big difference. But beyond that, your relationship with the environment changes.
E: Can you expand on that a little bit?
J: Sure. When you're training outdoors, you're not training in a controlled or manufactured environment. And so you become a part of the give and take, the flow of things. You become a part of what is happening around you. A part of the environment itself. That connection is a key piece of the warrior training we do, there is a very primal and genuine relationship you start to develop with your surroundings.
E: Why did you have to come to Colorado to find this type of training?
J: In large part because this is where my teacher was. And is. But Colorado is a really unique place, and it draws a lot of outdoorsy people with diverse backgrounds and training experiences. You can learn a lot from other people's experiences, even if you aren't training quite the same way as them. In nature, there are certain rules everyone has to abide by. This can be as simple as staying hydrated, but there are a lot of layers to it.
E: Can you share a little bit of insight into what your training was like?
J: We were training outside from the start. Doing stealth in parks, and in the mountains. We trained in a variety of martial arts, weapons work you name it. But what we learned went far beyond the literal training of the arts. The disciplines we trained in and the adversity we subjected ourselves to was all about experience, testing theories and knowing for sure. The purpose of the lessons this training taught (and teaches) went far beyond the goal of creating exceptional martial artists. Although it does that too. From the beginning this was a lifestyle. You become your training and your training becomes your life. Walls come down and you start to see how everything is connected. You start to approach all areas of your life with the intensity and focus you do your training. It is a very unifying process.
E: How would you explain stealth to someone who doesn't have any training experience?
J: Stealth is a concept. It is about learning how to blend in, how to not stand out. It is an understanding of the flow of things as they are happening around you. Stealth is all about harmonizing, kind of like Aiki. Think about being in the forest at night, the sounds you hear when there are no disturbances. Sort of the natural state of things. And think of how those sounds change or disappear when a predator or some other outlying element comes into the picture. In stealth, we want to blend with the natural state of things.
E: Are there any experiences that come to mind that were really impactful for you?
J: I remember one of our first big seminars up in Cameron Pass. The leaves were changing and we were up there training with a bunch of students. I have this image of all of these students working staff in the mountains, and that one really sticks with me. There was also a time me and a few of the guys dove into the Poudre River in late October. We were probably doing a variation on a rock dive (a Native American Training Method), but the main thing I remember is how cold the water was. My first firewalk is a really strong memory as well, that was a real first as far as experiences go. Very unique. At the top of the list though I'd have to put one of the test nights we did up in the mountains. I remember we had built wikiups and had finished up a sweat lodge. The sun had gone down and I remember sitting up above the camp looking down at the fires and the wikiups. For whatever reason, that memory is really significant. It felt like the culmination of something for me.
E: Those all sound pretty significant to me! So, would you say that this training has changed you pretty profoundly?
J: It has made me tougher, mentally and physically. And it has taught me things I couldn't have learned any other way. Everything ties together on so many levels. The lessons are amazing and so far reaching. And you learn more because your hunger for knowledge grows as you begin to see things differently. You change, it changes you. Its all sort of one and the same.
E: How has the training changed since you began?
J: Martial Arts in general has changed a lot, in terms of public perception in particular. The ninja boom I mentioned earlier had a certain mystique that drew a very unique group of people to it. The mystique is still there but the popularity of MMA and BJJ has had a strong impact on how people relate to the martial arts.
E: What would you say is one of the interesting lessons or observations you've made over the course of your training?
J: One thing is the way training seems to magnify people. It is really interesting to see the way people's effect starts to change when they start to develop a stronger sense of self and identity through their training. There is a connection and a confidence that illuminates things about them. Carlos Castaneda (author of the Teachings of Don Juan) talks about power being one of the first enemies. Strength can show you who people really are for better or for worse. Strength can draw or repel. In this case, it drew a really strong group of people. And they had to earn everything they took from the training, it was tough. Warrior training really has the power to transform people. And for me it was really humbling. The training opened a lot of doors, but it also forced us to look at the reality of ourselves. We had to be realistic about our place in things, because nature is beautiful and nature is severe. Concepts and ideas get tested by nature and reality, and that reality always wins.
Authenticity is where the true meaning lies. I think thats where the draw to MMA comes from, those guys are really coming for you. But training outdoors strips it all down. There isn't a cage, or a referee or a set of rules to be followed. There is nature, and there is you finding your way.
E: John thanks for taking the time to give us a little insight into your world, we are really looking forward to having you on Rough Haus this season! Any final thoughts you want to leave us with?
J: Any time. Looking forward to it. I guess I'll just say that I have found immeasurable value in warrior training, particularly when I am directly in contact with the elements. Training in the outdoors. I have had a lot of unique experiences and I hope that I can show you a few things that make you think a little differently about the way you train, and what you are training for.