Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why do it?

One of the main things that make people outside martial arts look at us “insiders” as immature, hormone-raging and irrational types is certainly the shape that some of the martial art discussions (read: meaningless quarrels) take. Essentially there are two types of those – first the inner disputes within the same system/style, second the “whose d!ck is bigger” debate among the practitioners of different ones. The former case is almost always politically motivated, so I am not going to delve into it here and now.

The second kind, however, as it seems to me, tends to be more or less sincere in the beginning, but deteriorates due to some fundamental lack of understanding between the parties involved. My experience tells me that on most occasions those irreconcilable disputes are based on the failure of all sides involved to understand and acknowledge their own and other people’s motivation to do martial arts in the first place. I will try here to offer a view that could maybe help in preventing of dissolving such waste of energy.

Let me start outright by saying that I feel almost any motive to get involved with training in martial arts is legit, as long as it is authentic. By authentic, I mean entirely based on interior benefits, and excluding exterior ones (commercial success, social status and similar). Some of the more common ones that we see are:
-         the genuine need for self-defense skills;
-         the need to build one’s self-confidence and sense of well being;
-         a cultural/ethnological study of sorts;
-         means of recreation;
-         competing in sport events;
-         spiritual uplifting and/or self-actualization.

Now, it is obvious (at least I hope it is) that each of these motives requires different approach to and emphasis in training in order to be realized. Therefore, whenever you look to join a martial art class, ask yourself what are you looking for and why are you doing it. Try to answer your own question as sincerely and honestly as possible, as it would save you a lot of time, frustration and disappointment later. Once you know what makes you tick, you can set off on finding a right school for you.

It means that your driving motivation will decide on which elements of the whole package may have more or less importance in whether you choose to join a particular group – is there a required uniform or not; are there some customs/rituals that are mandatory; is there emphasis on the original terminology etc.

For example, if you really do need realistic self-defense methods, especially in hurry, you ought to seek a school or a program that teaches some sort of combatives. Certainly the best known such type of system today is krav maga, but most other RBSD methods that focus on scenario type training and stressing adequate physical and psychological attributes will do just fine. On the other hand, in this case the only rituals observed should be those relating to the safety in training and the uniform should not play that much of a role.

Should you be on the quest to learn more about some culture’s expression embodied in its form of martial art(s), it is then certainly important to embrace the whole thing – uniforms, terminology, proper code of conduct (as long as it does not stand in direct opposition with you own set of deeper values), hierarchy…

However, it is my firm belief that the relations that may be of utmost importance within the school, during training, should not necessarily transfer to your daily life. In other words, please do not be a medieval ninja or a renaissance nobleman fencer, nor an MMA athlete or a SEAL commando at your daily job as a post office clerk, as it will usually make you a modern day jackass. Whatever you do, it only makes sense in its proper context.

 Those in need of some recreation after hours of sitting at work might be more concerned about the proximity and cost of the class that about the actual material being taught.

By now you should get the idea and the main point of my lecture, but there is one aspect that needs be addressed individually. When it comes to the whole spiritual/mental aspect of training martial arts, I really feel that if you mange to find a healthy environment in which the training is conducted, and you work with dedication and commitment, the spiritual and mental improvement will come on its own, almost as a side-effect of your training. Personally, I’d say that if you are searching primarily for that kind of effect, you will be better off doing yoga or practicing one of the many meditation methods out there (DISCLAIMER: look for proper guidance here and I am not recommending anybody’s approach in particular). Otherwise, you will be frustrating other people in you martial art club who are there for actual training.

And now, back to being sincere and honest with yourself. If you are, you will avoid getting involved in an argument over the street-effectiveness of aikido, tae-bo and capoeira, or the authenticity of lineage in kickboxing or MMA. That said, nevertheless, it is a fact that even within the same general system or style of martial art, some schools will put more emphasis on one aspect of training or another, so you might want to do some previous research into that as well.

Finally, there is one more thing left to stress here. It is normal for people, especially those who are into it for a long time, to change their point of view or focus of interest in training, so there is nothing bad in changing schools, trying out new things or combining two or more training approaches on one’s own personal path through the world of martial arts.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The craft of martial arts

It seems that today’s widely accepted term for many methods of fighting and combat, i.e. martial arts, is a frequent cause of the distorted understanding of the main purpose of the martial training, and therefore of the wrong approach to training methodology as well. Namely, the occurrence is widespread of practitioners commencing their “voyage” in a martial art from the end, hence skipping all those things that are actually supposed to shape and lead them to the desired goal. This is especially characteristic of the people who wish to achieve some mental or spiritual “enlightenment” or “advancement”, or in other words, to attain some proclaimed ideals in the context of martial arts.

In this view, some systems and styles of martial arts are actually arranged in such a way to offer exclusively this approach to the budding practitioner, hence hindering a normal development even for those who join the training for authentic intentions or maybe as a complete novice, without even knowing what to expect. In the majority of cases, it is the consequence of adhering to the ideals of the style founder in his final appearance, without the knowledge and understanding of the process that had lead to that appearance as such.
But, let us get back from the start. If we accept martial arts as one of many forms of art in general, then in might be useful to take a short look at the process of how an artist/performer is developed in some other arts. Regardless of whether at issue is painting, music, literature or dance, one can see a method of education that has been so much accepted as successful, that it has in effect become something of an axiom. However, as such it is often overseen, especially in the martial art training. The fact is that all other art forms commence their training as a craft. In practice, it means that the students first needs to get acquainted with the tools they will be using in their performance and potential creative efforts, followed by the technique of its utilization. However, this phase of utilization and application quickly becomes contextual, i.e. requires performance that clearly demonstrates what kind of art/craft is in question, and the level that the student/apprentice has attained can also be assessed from that performance.

In this parallel, we can already observe several deviations that emerge in the training of martial arts. First, in the phase of getting to know the tools, more time than necessary is spent. In case of empty-handed fighting methods it is not a rare sight of wasting too much time and energy on conditioning the striking surfaces (which sometimes turns into its own goal, often for the demonstration/circus type purposes). On the other side, in armed styles, there is a frequent occurrence of the practice weapon being sacralized, with some pseudo-spiritual notions being assigned to it, and where the practitioner is becomes a subject of the weapon, instead of its user.

In the next phase, we see an unacceptable number of examples where the training is approached so that the individual motor skills (techniques) are practiced primarily, or even exclusively, in solo form (in the air), i.e. completely isolated from the context in which they have emerged, thus without understanding their true aim. The schools and styles where this kind of work is prevailing usually try to justify it by “perfecting” the technique, but it only shows the fundamental lack of understanding for the methodology of a functional combative training. Namely, the human nervous system by its nature is not directed at adopting any motor habits as such, but rather at achieving particular results of the motor action. In other words, it is necessary from the very beginning to train the techniques in a manner that enables to understand the purpose of the movement as such, which means the targeted areas on the opponent and the effect sought. This omission is especially notable in so-called “striking systems”, and particularly so among the traditionally directed ones. For that reason, it is a common thing in karate, taekwondo or kung fu schools to see the practitioner standing in line, performing techniques in the air, often as the instructor counts. Can you imagine a painter drawing lines as his professor counts, and without canvas; or a pianist practicing an etude on count – without a piano!? After all, imagine this kind of training in judo, wrestling or BJJ gyms…

Of course, musicians do work on their scales and chords, dancers on the basic steps and figures, but always with awareness of their contextual use, and also usually as the preparation for the contextual application, most often at the same rehearsal/session. From that standpoint, the formal exercises in martial arts (kata, poomse, taolu, jurus, sayaw…) should be approached in a similar manner. Just like with scales, their individual notes/techniques, should be also used in new combinations, with varying rhythms and different partners. The scales cannot be the purpose in themselves, as they are but the raw material to make music, and so the forms should not be the final goal in practicing a martial art. Instead, on should be looking for the application of their technical contents in working with a partner.

After all that has been said so far, the image of a more functional (in the sense of training methodology) approach to studying and teaching martial arts should be emerging. It would be good to introduce the technical material in a systematic and chronologically coherent manner, so that the previously learnt skills would prepare the practitioner for the following ones. Besides that, very short time in training sessions (especially with beginners) should be spent in doing solo work on techniques, but instead it is very important to work with a partner. If for whatever reason the partner is not available, the time would be better spent in physical conditioning and fitness, as it will enable to spend more time (and repetitions) with your partner later, before the fatigue and degradation of technique set in.

Another thing is very important, yet often neglected in the martial training, frequently due to instructor’s to practice “bad marketing” on themselves. Namely, not everyone who first embarks on this path is able, or should, become great artists, those whose example will set the standard of great achievements. In other arts we also see many top-level performers, great masters of their craft, or artisans, but still they are not who we think of when those arts are mentioned. Great masters of the violin of piano still play the compositions of Paganini or Chopin; great dancers still perform the plays of great choreographers; excellent painters work on orders etc. 

In this regard, martial art practitioners have an advantage to the aforementioned ones, but they are often unaware and even ready to renounce it for the sake of some quasi-standards set be long gone persons from different times, cultures, environments and genetic heritage. What it means is, whenever training with a partner, every single repetition of the technique, scenario of situation at hand, is actually a unique event that cannot be recreated, with all those more or less pronounced variables that occur and are welcome in training, because only that way the essence of any technique is recognized, on the level of the nervous system, which makes it functional in all those circumstances where it is adequate.

Without the intention to be a wise-ass, since many others have already spoken about it – train to achieve the maximum of what YOU can be, and not to the closest possible copy of someone else!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The not so grand opening

Those of you who know me already know just how much I like to go into extended rants on things of interest...those of you who don't know me - well, you'll see. I just hope you will find it all at least a little bit of interest to you too.

This blog will relate first and foremost to my musings about martial arts, so to all my friends who would like to hear opinions on other subjects - sorry! We'll have to keep using other sorts of media for that...but we'll see what happens in a long run.