Two Modern Martial Arts Fallacies

February 11, 2014

I have repeatedly come across two pervasive fallacies in my martial arts training. They are diametrically opposed to each other, and both, in my honest opinion, are quite inaccurate. Both are generated by narrow-minded viewpoints, and they perpetuate narrow-mindedness in others.

They are both fueled by the ego’s need to feel special and right.

They relate to the adherence of traditional practices in martial arts. One rejects it completely. The other promotes it with absolute and exclusive devotion.

I have spent more of my training among traditionalists, so the idea I encountered the most was the devout belief that the inherited curriculum was all we needed to accomplish our martial arts goals. The most extreme example of this was a karate teacher I studied with for nine of my formative years. Everything we did was believed to be a part of the curriculum handed for generations in Okinawa. Instead of sparring at all, we believed that kata (individual form practice) was all we needed.

More recently have I come in contact with the adamant rejection of traditional martial arts practices. There are many modern practices that allow people to continually fine-tune their application of techniques against resistant training partners, and some individuals who only practice these develop the belief that if they don’t see a technique’s effectiveness proven while sparring or wrestling, then the technique is completely illegitimate. These individuals are unlikely to believe in any connection between standing meditation or the I-Ching and combat-readiness.

I have spent the majority of my life as a traditionalist. When I studied in a karate school that did no sparring, I believed that with every rank promotion I achieved, I was becoming gradually more invincible. After all, how could someone who made it through years of grueling workouts of forms, kicks and chishi (an Okinawan type of weight training) practice not be a bad-ass?

When I eventually did try some cross-training, I found that even after years of pushups and snapping punches, I only had a slight advantage over brand new boxing students when it came to sparring.

The main issue with the traditional practices is not that they are not effective, but that they become less effective for combat when practiced in a vacuum.  One of the reasons that the historical masters were effective in combat involved the things they had been doing before or alongside their marital arts training. Some of the old masters were military or policemen, like Guangping’s Kuo Lienying or Shorin-ryu Karate’s Shoshin Nagamine. Many had practiced other arts for decades before learning the art that they are now most known for. Some spent their free time challenging other artists, or getting into brawls at cockfights. Many lived lives that were extremely physically demanding, as farmers or fishermen.

Having grown up in times and places less policed than suburban American, many of the historical masters were likely to have learned the basics of fighting by fighting. Then their serious practice of the traditional arts transformed them from normal people who could protect themselves to warriors with some truly amazing qualities.

Because many of us do not live the active or violent lives that those who created the traditional curricula did, it might not be reasonable for us to assume the traditional curricula have all we need to create effective fighting skills in ourselves. For those of us who forgot to join the high school wrestling team or did not have to fight our ways home from school every day as children, we may need more than just a traditional curriculum of forms and prearranged partner exercises. This is why it is important for those who do favor the traditional arts to engage in some free-movement sparring with partners who can offer some resistance.

The other side of the coin is that for many people, traditional practices are essential essential part of the plan for achieving the full set of goals of many modern martial artists. I am not, in this case, talking about the longevity and internal feelings of well-being that some forms can help you achieve. I’m talking about being the kind of fighter you want to be. While there is a great deal of technique, skill and understanding involved in developing as a boxer or wrestler, many martial artists have realistic aspirations that are much higher than what you can achieve only by fighting.

There is an experience of grace, effortless and timelessness while interacting with an opponent, whether it is a training partner or an actual foe, that some of the traditional forms can help martial artists achieve. The ability to engage an unpredictable foe with total self-containment and peace is an ideal that is made more realistic when the fighter practices rigorous and precise forms that polish the mind and body while strengthening the spirit.

There are some old forms, especially the unadulterated internal forms, that not only educate the body for a fight and tone muscles, but cause subtler changes in the practitioner’s mind and body. These changes can take out a great deal of the busywork and trial-and-error that you see in sport-fighting. They can facilitate a subtle conditioning of your connective tissue that will help you take control of your opponent even with relaxed muscles. They help to calm your mind in the presence of intensity, and improve your timing as you allow time to slow down.

The main challenge may be that this phenomenon is rare–not because only a select few are capable of achieving it, but because it requires time, patience and humility to attain. This experience of ease requires more dedication and patience to attain than the ability to choke out or out-wrestler your practice partner.

Ideas like this of mine are based in my own experience, and more intended to facilitate good discussion and questioning than to convince anyone of anything. Please share any honest thoughts that you have regarding the topic.

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