The longer I train the more I realize the importance of wellness.
Of course, wellness may be the least glamorous part of training. After all, eating vegetables and legumes doesn’t make for an exciting youtube clip.
Luckily I get to hang around a bunch of experienced practitioners who tell stories from time to time of their tough training. Personally, I’ve been an uke since age 11 and am becoming more acutely aware of how repeated impact affects the body.
It’s because of these realizations that I recently read The Okinawa Program, a book describing the Okinawan way of life and how the Ryukyuans became the longest lived people on the planet. And fortunately, thanks to the good people at YMAA, I was able to follow up that research with Western Herbs: For Martial Artists and Contact Athletes.
Western Herbs is a unique addition to my library.
The Okinawa Program deftly lays out the lifestyle and diet of the Okinawans. Most other books regarding traditional Chinese medicine, including The Bubishi, discuss herbal concoctions that you will most likely never encounter. Western Herbs, on the other hand, takes that same pharmacological approach and applies it to vegetation and growth readily available in western countries.
Have you ever wondered how Aloe Vera works, and how to utilize it’s full effects? Did you know the capsaicin in peppers (when prepared properly) can help relieve back pain and arthritis?
This is stuff that doesn’t require a shady trip down back alleys in Chinatown. The best part is that this book grades each herbal claim via a 5 leaf system. Zero leaves means the claim of effect is completely unsubstantiated, while five leaves means you are good to go and can rely on the results.
The author, Susan Lynn Peterson, is a trained martial artist as well as researcher (she has a real P.H.D., not the weird “professorship” some martial artists prescribe themselves). Her approach is non-mystical with no heavy-handed desire to prove that eastern healing methods are the exclusive answer to all health problems. She mixes east and west in an approachable and fact-friendly way.
The book is broken up into digestible pieces that teach you…
- how to utilize herbs from a novice perspective.
- how to create various kinds of tinctures and concoctions.
- how to handle each of the most important herbs.
- how to assess your needs and safely begin herbal treatment.
- how to not make yourself dead by doing something stupid.
There’s no question I won’t be able absorb all this book has to offer in one sitting. That’s why I intend to keep it nearby as a resource to access as I slowly increase my ability to understand and improve my own wellness.
If you check any tourism guide for Pennsylvania (yes, they exist) one of the ‘must-see’ stops is Longwood Gardens. Longwood is a beautiful piece of property that is rich in both natural conservation and history. I won’t belabor the details; suffice it to say that the place developed out of an odd mixture of arboreal enthusiasm and gunpowder barronism.
Amongst Longwood’s 1050 acres of finely tuned gardens and landscapes lies a very large conservatory. Areas inside the conservatory are dedicated to different climates and varieties of plant life. One such room is dedicated to bonsai.
For those unfamiliar, the term “bonsai” refers to the growing of miniature trees in pots or amidst small landscapes. “Bonsai” (bone-sigh) is not to be confused with “Banzai” (bahn-z-eye), which is used as a cry of enthusiasm meaning roughly “ten thousand years”. Banzai also has a connection to Kamikaze pilots in World War II, so it is proper to understand the difference.
Bonsai are famous (and infamous) for the amount of skill and care that goes into their care. The number of species used in Bonsai planting is extremely vast, as is their longevity if properly cared for.
The goal of bonsai growing is to test the imagination and skill of the grower, as well as spur contemplation and appreciation in the viewer. It is not entirely unlike Ikebana, the art of flower arrangement.
Here are a select few Bonsai on display in the Longwood Conservatory. Note their age and the amount of careful guidance that has gone into their growth. Click any of the images below for a closer look, and please excuse some of the glare. These trees were kept behind glass in a carefully controlled environment.
Japanese Black Pine Bonsai. Training begun 1949. This tree represents a recognizable and well known style of bonsai design.
Sargent Juniper Bonsai. Training unstated. This tree has a particularly strong ‘Karate Kid’ feel to it. I know I’m lessening the artestry of it by saying that, but it’s true.
Loose Flower Hornbeam Bonsai. Training begun 1990. This was a really cool display as it was like a miniature forest. The ground moss helped perpetuate that feeling and worked in proper scale.
Azalea Bonsai. Training unstated. Showed great symmetry and balance via the bifurcation in the trunk.
Ginko Bonsai. Training begun 1909. This was a Chinese styled bonsai with an incredible age of over 100 years.
Dwarf Japanese Garden Juniper Bonsai. Training begun 1966. This is an interesting specimen because it shows the Japanese penchant for intentional asymmetry.
The care and patience that goes into the development of these artful trees corresponds significantly with our martial arts. A product like this is not the result of a year of pruning, or even five years. It takes decades, and the more the tree grows the subtler it’s beauty becomes.
A few weeks ago my girlfriend and I decided to stop in at a used book store. This, from the start, was not a cost effective idea. We both figured that since the books were so reduced in price, we might as well buy indiscriminately. Therefore our “bargain” visit quickly resulted in a basket full of impromptu books.
Over the years I have trained my eye to catch anything that might be martial arts related, or even roughly relevant to Asian culture. Although such finds are frequently fruitless, I’ve come away with a few gems in the past. This latest trip provided one such find.
Sticking out amongst a sea of miscellaneous novels was a paperback entitled “Kokoro”. From my martial training I knew what the term meant so I was immediately drawn to it. As I soon discovered, this “Kokoro” was a novel written by Natsume Soseki, and was in fact a very famous story by a very famous writer.
The term kokoro is generally translated as “the heart of things”, which is the most fundamental and easy way to express the complex range of spirit, emotion, mind, courage, resolve, and intensity that the origin word encapsulates.
Natsume Soseki was not a martial artist (as far as I can determine), nor did this turn out to be a martial arts book. However, it was an exceptional study of the inner workings of Japanese thought and emotion.
I’ve always believed that understanding the culture upon which a martial art is built helps in comprehending the full execution and meaning of the art. While one needn’t don a hakama and queue in everyday life to practice budo, gaining a deeper understanding of the culture (in this case Japanese) can build a rich context within which we might train, learn, and grow.
“Kokoro”, the novel, is set just as the Meiji Era is ending. The story follows a young man who is trying to graduate from college and find his way in life. The young man encounters a withdrawn but studious older gentleman whom he immediately takes to and wishes to learn from. The novel proceeds to study the boy and his new mentor in great depth, examining their emotional and social baggage.
Understanding the Japanese from an external western perspective can be very difficult. This novel is a rare insight into the subtleties of some of the more “peculiar” Japanese obsessions with loneliness, self sacrifice, social etiquette, and emotional withdraw. These cultural characteristics, which are many generations old and deeply seeded, have been integral to the development and formation of budo.
Interestingly, if you are so inclined, you can read the entire novel online for free here. Apparently it has become part of UNESCO canon and has been reproduced fully with permission. That much reading can be difficult online though, so if you’d like you can pick up a paperback copy here…or just visit the nearest used book store and hope you get lucky like I did.