Shuhari: The Stages Of Mastery

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of learning lately. More specifically, how I can improve my teaching and speed up my students learning the process.

I’ve come across a few tactics that seem to be working really well such as outlining key steps, preempting common mistakes, and setting everyone in the same orientation.

But that’s not what I want to talk to you about now. Instead, I want to share with you the concept of SHU-HA-RI.

shuhari the stages of learning to Mastery

I first came across this idea while reading an article about a guy who got his black belt in record time. In the article, he mentions Shuhari, and as I’d never heard of it before, I set about researching it.

It turns out it pretty well know in the learning space, lol.

Shuhari illustrates the stages of learning of you go through to mastery. There are many different translations for Shu-Ha-Ri, but the one I like best roughly means “learn, break, create”.

Shu (learn) is the beginning stage.

You follow the teachings of your instructor precisely. You concentrate on how to perform a technique, without worrying too much about the underlying theory.

If there are multiple variations on how to do the technique, you focus on just one way.

Ha (break) at this point, you begin to branch out.

With the basic techniques working, you learn the underlying principles and concepts behind the technique. You start to innovate, and learning variations then integrate them into your practice.

Ri (create) Now, you aren’t learning from an instructor, but from your own practice.

You create your own techniques and adapt what you’ve learned to your own style.

As it’s a traditional Japanese concept, I thought it important to include an explanation from a traditional source. Here is the explanation from Aikido master Endō Seishirō shihan stated:

“It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows.

In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation.

Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process, the forms may be broken and discarded.

Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”

Bascially, you start by learning concrete steps and imitating them, then focus on understanding principles, and finally into creating your style.

All this is of great relief to me. Shuhari backs up what I’ve been saying for a long time about the concepts vs. techniques argument.

Beginners should focus on techniques, while advanced students should focus on the concepts. Experts can do whatever the hell they like.

So how can you apply this to your training?

When you’re learning a new technique, first learn the key steps precisely. Then understand the concepts behind the technique and innovate ways to apply them. Finally, create your own techniques and style.

Unfortunately, it’s not a shortcut. But it is an interesting concept I recognise in my training and it’s the method the guy I mentioned earlier used to get his Black Belt super fast.

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