One of the immutable truths of martial arts training is that it requires hard work. Time, sweat, and pain are the primary currencies for martial growth. However, I’ve never believed in the concept of training without thought. “Shut Up and Train” may be a great way to kick yourself (or others) into gear, but a career spent “shutting up and training” fails the true potential of martial arts, by my estimation.
Let me explain in the context of exercise, and walking around the neighborhood.
What is a Walk?
Sometimes when I am taking a stroll around my neighborhood I wonder what passersby must think of me. As they push forward to make pace on their run, mind the behavior of their dogs, or chat with their jogging buddies, they see me doing none of those things. In fact, I am walking at death row pace and looking around like I’m lost. They might very well think me a vagrant…or so high I forgot how I got there.
In truth I use those walks to untether my mind from the day’s grind. I try my best to appreciate small things I never noticed before, or wrestle with problems that I haven’t yet come to terms with.
While I walk I wonder of those passing me, must everything be so…regimented?
The Trap of Pure Exercise in the Dojo
There are limitations in my story above. For example, I hardly know what other people are thinking or what their intentions are…and I certainly don’t think people need to do things the way I do them. In fact, many people state that they achieve a relaxed mental state and calmness through hard physical activity (like hitting a bag) or repetitive activity (like running). But that is the subtlety here – I am not referring to a peaceful mind, but instead of mindfulness.
In his book “My Journey With the Grandmaster” Bill Hayes Sensei discusses the results of training Sanchin kata over and over again. He pushed his mind and body to a point where normal aches and pains washed away in the rhythm of the kata. By the end, his attitude and perspective had changed and he felt a great happiness. This is the potential benefit of prolonged exercise. However, it was not on that same day that Hayes Sensei gained his massive insight into the fundamental operations of that kata and how it could be applied throughout his entire karate paradigm. He did that slowly and thoughtfully on different days, observing himself and others and finding the important questions to ponder.
If, every day, an individual arrives at the dojo and commits fantastic effort into their training they have a chance at receiving the same kind of benefits Hayes Sensei experienced. But if that’s all they do, they could be forever limited.
Mindfulness in the dojo should not be confused with discussing technique or bunkai drilling as both of those matters have distinct purpose. Instead, mindfulness is taking the time to step outside yourself and “watch” with patience as you execute the art. You, as the observer and the executer, have the opportunity to poke around and ask why, how, and to whom. As such, the observations made will likely begin technical and expand beyond it.
A mindful observation of form and function should consider physical technique as well as emotional content (we all remember the finger pointing to the moon right?) and presence of character. Some questions that might arise include: who are you? Why are you moving in such a way? What change in emotional state does this bring? Are you feeling focus…or anger? How does this relate to the bigger picture of the art? Are you being wasteful? Does the dignity of this kata walk with you when you leave the dojo?
One of the least tangible but most critical qualities of true martial arts masters is Hinkaku, a possession of quiet dignity. When around those rare individuals who embody Hinkaku one tends to feel at ease, and wishes the individual would speak more as everything they say and do has weight. In some manner, the dignified individual both exemplifies the simplicity of training for trainings-sake and the discovery of mindful introspection.
Of course, a person of Hinkaku has something else that can’t be written about or photographed or recorded. But that once again is the purpose of mindfulness, as everyone’s something is entirely unique and embodying it is paramount to the martial way.
This is the fifth article in Reader Week II. Author Adam Cave is a nidan in Taekwondo and sandan in RyuTe. He is the lead instructor at Raleigh RyuTe Karate and authors a blog called Solo Keiko. In this article Adam discusses the potential hazards with constantly collecting more material, and how specialization can lead to more effective technique.
Freedom From Choice: The Dangers of “More” in Martial Arts
I recently watched a TED Talk lecture on youtube by Barry Schwartz. In his book “The Paradox of Choice,” the author takes on the concept of freedom in Western Civilization. According to Schwartz, we define freedom as having unlimited personal choices. The paradox is that the vast numbers of choices we now face every day have a tendency to cause self-paralysis and limit both our freedom and our happiness.
These are big ideas and the video is well worth watching. But what does it all have to do with martial arts? To my mind, everything. Start with the thousands of martial arts styles being practiced today world wide (hundreds, possibly, in your own community). From the hugely popular to the esoteric, from classical to traditional to modern and hybrids, there is no shortage of ways to defend ourselves. Internal, external, hard, soft, Eastern, Western: the list keeps growing; a clear case of globalization at work.
Now consider the hundreds of techniques found in every methodology. There are innumerable kata, training exercises, and drills to help us learn. Each style has multiple instructors who focus on differing aspects of their art. With this many choices and this much material, where do you begin? To make matters worse, as a peaceful member of society, not seeking out conflict, you may never know if you chose right. At least you won’t know until it is far too late to change (This article assumes that you, like me, want your martial arts to provide you with at least some improved self-defense skills).
It is high time we start questioning whether all this choice and all this material is making us better or worse martial artists. The cynic in me sees it all as marketing strategies to gain and keep dojos full. Business-minded instructors, lacking depth of knowledge, go out and “acquire” new material that their students have not yet seen. But I am sure there are also many teachers who truly believe that real self-defense requires a broad base of knowledge.
One of the most common mantras in martial arts is that techniques have to be practiced repeatedly until they can be done without thinking or they will never work in real life. I completely agree. But, to train any movement that much, requires a great deal of time and, if you are constantly learning new material, you will never have enough. Each technique becomes part of a long list that can be recalled but rarely can be done well without thinking about it first.
Although this may be a harder sell, the better option is, literally, less options.
Advice on Getting Less
Begin by choosing one art to study. Commit yourself to the strategies and techniques of that art. This may still be a mountain of material but at least it all falls under the same umbrella. To make matters simpler, continuously look for one, overriding logic in every move you do. This will help you see the similarities between movements and techniques that otherwise, might appear quite different. In a fully developed art, the movement of the hands, body, and feet should all be coordinated and flow easily together. If you train to make a core set of fundamental skills second nature, you will actually be able to use a broader range of techniques as long as they are all built on those same fundamentals. Eventually, what to others may appear as many differing techniques, to you should all seem like subtle variations on the same thing. This is the type of skill set that you can count on in a fight because you won’t have to think about it. Instead of being paralyzed by too many choices, you will move freely and instinctively using techniques that you have real confidence in.
As an avid lover of all martial arts, I don’t want to kill anyone’s enthusiasm for learning new things. Some amount of variety is necessary to keep us motivated. The key will always be how well we can integrate that material into our core discipline.
In the end, what we do to protect ourselves is deeply personal and it will not matter how it looks or who it impresses as long as it works. The thousands of martial arts represent the work of thousands of individual people, each developing personal methods of self-defense that worked for them. Ironically, they all had the same threat in mind; a fellow human with two arms and two legs and possibly a weapon held in one of two hands. More choices will not help you beat this opponent. Deeper knowledge, of even a few techniques, will be a much stronger asset.
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.