We have a great question today from Nicholas regarding wellness and diet:
Most of us as martial artists practice arts that come from east Asian countries. For the sake of performance, do you think that our diet should mirror as closely as possible the diets from the region of our respective art? Obviously, eating Sheppard’s pie before a training session might not end so well, but do you think diets deemed ‘healthy’ by Western standards really lend themselves to maximum performance in a discipline that is not?
Here’s my take on it:
I’ve always believed that the wider the understanding of an art the better a practitioner can express it. There are subtle factors that go into the growth of a traditional art that are built on generations of ritual and cultural subtext. It may seem that learning an art (say karate for example) shouldn’t involve much more than punching, kicking, kata, and fighting. Yet the expressions found in those kata, and the methods of movement, have foundational cues that are informed by the rest of the surrounding culture.
In karate, you’ll often hear terms like “low block” and “augmented block” for fundamental movements. However, if you look at the Japanese term for low block it is “gedan barai”, which is better translated as “lower level sweep”. True, Gedan Barai could be a block but it could also be much more. Understanding the language in this instance hints at the bigger picture for a seemingly open-and-shut case of technique execution. “Augmented block” is even more interesting. The Okinawans had a term for it known as “meotode”, meaning “husband and wife hand”. Without getting far off topic, let’s just say that meotode as a concept has little to do with augmenting a block, and somewhere along the line the real context got lost in translation.
Diet fits into this puzzle in a similar way.
In his book “My Journey with the Grandmaster”, Bill Hayes Sensei discusses dinner at Shimabukuro Eizo’s house (his instructor on Okinawa). After an evening of training Shimabukuro Sensei and Hayes Sensei would occassionally retire to the kitchen where they were greeted by Mrs. Shimabukuro, who would ask them what kind of training they had done that day. Depending on the intensity, method, and duration of the training Mrs. Shimabukuro would concoct different meals. The intent of her meals was to directly counteract negative effects of the day’s training.
Most people don’t think of diet as a direct part of their training program. They realize that eating healthy is good and eating fast food is bad, but don’t go too far beyond that. In an art like karate the body can be intentionally (or unintentionally) degraded in certain ways using vital point striking, joint locking, percussive striking, etc. Some of the old Okinawan masters had developed an attuned eye for the effects of herbs and natural pharmacopia on the body. They then used natural resources at hand to help aid the body in withstanding the specific rigors of karate training.
As you might imagine, practitioners like Bill Hayes gained a significant advantage by paying attention to these seemingly mundane details.
Hayes Sensei did something else important – he investigated dietary science even after leaving Okinawa. When he got back to the United States it became evident that the day-to-day diet of the Okinawans was going to be extremely difficult and expensive to maintain. Instead of reverting back to a standard American diet (a trap many of the American GI’s fell into) Hayes Sensei decided to study how he might use supplements and healthly local foods to replicate the specific effects of the strategic Okinawan meals as prepared by Mrs. Shimabukuro. He attempted to find Western equivalents of things like the Okinawan Goya, which was an extremely bitter vegetable that happened to be jam packed with antioxidants.
In Hayes Sensei’s story we see both sides of the answer to this particular question.
Should practitioners adopt the diet of the home country of their art? Potentially yes. The diet may have been specifically suited to enhance the art in question. Furthermore, countries like Okinawa and Japan naturally have more foods that are known to be extremely healthy – things like fish, vegetables, green tea, etc.
That being said, Eastern diet isn’t a unique and unreplicatable necessity for understanding a traditional art and can be replaced but smart Western eating. Science is starting to unlock some of the secrets of nutrition and a healthy, balanced diet can be established using more Western means.
I think perhaps the most important takeaway here is lining up training intent with dietary action. Going to GNC and loading up on Muscle Milk and Creotine may help a person achieve a bulky, muscular body that appeals to Western eyes but such body development is hardly ideal for classical martial arts training where flexibility, fast twitch muscles, and balanced physique is desireable. Furthermore, a one-size-fits-all diet plan for general health (lots of veggies, water, low sugars, etc) is a good starting place for any martial artist but doesn’t take into consideration the specific kinds of damage the body may go through in a particular art. In that way, observing that art’s classical diet may prove informative.
Lastly, looking at global blue zones like Okinawa, Sardinia, Icaria, and Loma Linda can help provide a basis of understanding for good longevity. Studying these places can provide ideas for integrating dietary decisions from different parts of the world with indigenous diet to form a personalized and effective wellness regiment.
Lately I’ve been studying two works by Rory Miller, a highly experienced martial artist and corrections officer. I say ‘study’ because simply reading the material wouldn’t result in any long term benefit. Miller takes decades of experience inside law enforcement and applies it to the civilian world. The information is important enough to warrant the kind of serious focus one might expend in the dojo.
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It is a traditional martial artist’s responsibility to differentiate between the timeless aspects of an art and the timely. The human body has not changed significantly since the beginning of recorded history. As such, the brilliant individuals that developed effective classical arts should still be heeded carefully. Of course, the tools and environment in which man lives has been changing constantly. Therefore, it requires an adaptive mindset to adjust and improve with the times.
Think of it this way – gunpowder may be old, but efficient and concealable hand guns certainly are not. Furthermore, law enforcement ‘back in the day’ was often as complex as chopping off a limb or tossing someone in a dungeon for X amount of years. Nowadays, law enforcement is a little more subtle.
Training and Teaching with the Law in Mind
It’s often said (accurately) that martial arts training should consist of simple, repeatable tactics that can work under high levels of stress. As such, clouding the mind with complicated thoughts of lawsuits and use-of-force specifics may end up leading to tragedy. On the other hand, in the modern world even the most obvious cases of self defense can lead to extensive jail time, loss of job, and utter disaster for individuals and families.
It turns out martial arts for life protection is a little more complicated than we all would hope.
Even more thought provoking than training with the law in mind is teaching with the law in mind. After all, instructors only see their students for a few hours each week. Is it up to the sensei to focus on technique and leave the law study outside the dojo? Is it even ethical to try to define the moral line where self defense should be used as opposed to staying hands off for legal purposes?
Addressing Tough Force Questions
Balancing the law and effective self defense can be extremely difficult. Most of the time martial artists have to come to a personal conclusion about when and where they will use force, and to what extent (control, pain, damage, death). Unfortunately, coming to a personal conclusion is not necessarily the same as coming to an informed conclusion. That’s where Rory Miller comes in. He provides a foundation of information that helps demystify legal factors of force and gives the reader tools to quickly navigate murky situations, even when the best possible outcome is the death of another human.
These two books, “Force Decisions” and “Scaling Force“, are not necessarily a pair. By that I mean they can be read separately with no sense of lacking. However, I found reading them in close succession to be informative and useful.
“Force Decisions” is set up in the following manner:
* Training – Explaining how police officers are trained and what they are taught when it comes to force on the job.
* Checks and Balances – Describing what happens to an officer if his/her behavior is called into question.
* Experience – Exploring how on-the-job incidences come to inform and enhance an officer’s ability to use appropriate force.
* About You – Explaining how to take the lessons from law enforcement and apply them to citizen life.
Throughout the book the author provides a series of ‘hard truths’ which help readers understand the conundrums they may encounter when thinking about force seriously.
“Scaling Force” is more focused yet also more extensive. In “Force Decisions” Rory Miller touches upon the levels of force officers have at their disposal and the circumstances in which they might use it. “Scaling Force” takes that concept of a force continuum and explores each and every phase in detail, adding the thoughts and experiences of Lawrence Kane as well.
“Scaling Force” is set up in the following manner:
* Intro to Violence – Describing common scenarios and mental states in which violence occurs.
* Level 1 Presence – Using authority, body language, etc to de-escalate and control.
* Level 2 Voice – Using tone, volume, etc to dominate or dictate a conversation.
* Level 3 Touch – Using non-damaging physical contact to calm, direct, or distract.
* Level 4 Control – Using technique to restrain or control a violent situation.
* Level 5 Less Lethal – Using strikes, bone breaks, sprains, etc to eliminate a violent threat.
* Level 6 Lethal – Using lethal force to eliminate a deadly threat.
One of the most important concepts stressed in the book is the lack of clarity or linearity in which the force continuum is used. Activating the right level at the right moment is a combination of situational awareness, training, and wisdom (ie knowledge applied in real life to optimal effect). If that sounds difficult, trust that it is. One might be tempted to forget all this and just go with the old saying: ‘I’d rather be judged by twelve than buried by six’…but with resources available like these books relying solely on that mindset is lazy rather than courageous.
Most of the time I like to keep my posts practical and useful, but sometimes you have to swing for the fences and ask the big questions. There aren't too many bigger than this:
Who are the most substantial influencers in the martial arts universe; the movers and shakers that, without them, the martial landscape would be much different today?
The big disclaimer for this video is that it is a highly subjective topic. There is no possible way my list could be considered definitive. In fact, in a few years I might even disagree with myself! Nevertheless, it is a fun experiment trying to appreciate the real roots of our collective martial culture.
Is your brain churning already in regards to whom you might include on "The Top Ten Most Influential Martial Artists of ALL TIME"? Well, let's find out if you and I agree or disagree. To the list!
If the video doesn't pop up when you click it, just visit the youtube page here.
I really hope you enjoyed watching this little romp through history and present day development. If you feel that your style or system was excluded unfairly I do apologize – there were so many to consider and so few slots available. If it makes you feel any better, I didn't even include the founder of my own style. So I at least ATTEMPTED some objectivity.
When you stop for a moment and really consider the lasting impact of individuals like this it makes you appreciate the complexity of martial development. Without the efforts of just a handful of special people what we know and accept today as martial arts could be completely different.
Consider now the seriousness of your training and your value in preserving martial culture for generations to come. Who might bloggers include on a list like this 100 years from now when they sit down to write on their futuristic brain-implant-computers? Will you be on their list? .