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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Inner workings of Martial Arts

"You may train for a long, long time, but if you merely move your hands & feet and jump up & down like a puppet, learning Karate is not very different from learning to dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter; your will have failed to grasp the quintessence of Karate-Do." ~Gichin Funakoshi

All Martial Arts instructors must've had this happen to them at least once: A student comes up to you and asks "When will I learn the next form? (or self defense set, etc). As their instructor, you might be tempted to look at them with a raised eyebrow, and say in your best Yoda-like voice: "When you are ready".

Of course, the student already *thinks* they are ready, or they wouldn't have asked in the first place, right? If they've been at your school for some time, its okay that they think they're deserving of something new and novel, right?

Dojo etiquette aside (in the Dojos I've trained in, it was bad manners to ask for a new technique or Kata from the teacher), I don't necessarily see a student's desire for the next Kata, waza, kumite combo, etc, as a breach of ettiquette.....instead I see a student who is setting goals for himself/herself, and knows how to get there. That's great! I tell my students that I like how they're progressing, and how I like to see that they're setting goals for themselves.

But then, I tell them that we teach new material when we see that a student has worked enough to understand the "base" of the Kata (at our school, we call them "Taolu" or simply just "Chuan" (fist), and that they'll get a new Taolu or technique when we deem they're ready. I ask that they "look forward to the surprises when they arrive". I suggest that they practice the movements until there is no thought involved. I once told a class "You should feel the form in your bones, you want to almost feel the emotion of the form. With practice, your form will be you, not merely some set of movements strung together".

However, another thing I teach my students, is that simply knowing the sequence of movements to a particular Taolu, doesn't necessarily mean they've mastered the art as a whole. I'm a firm believer in that Forms are not merely requirements for belt ranks, or merely a cardiovascular exercise or a dusty long-worn tradition. I believe that even in today's evolution of Martial systems, the seemingly "old style" drill of kata, taolu, or whatever you'd like to call it, is a valuable link to not only history, but also a valuable link to all things of BodyMind connections.

Call me "old school" if you'd like, but when I trained in Karate, my Sensei had us practice Kata till the cows came home. Every day, Kata. I do remember as a child, wondering when I'd actually learn how to fight just like in the "Kung Fu" TV series that I so faithfully watched every week. Then we'd do Kumite (sparring).....and I still wondered when I'd learn how to fight. However, when belt tests came, we were required to defend ourselves against the rest of the class, some of them with weapons, some of them without. That's when the "actual fighting" came out. But where it came from, I had no clue! I just remember seeing people attacking, then it would be over and on with the rest of the belt test.

It took many years after my youngster days, years of studying other martial systems, for me to realize that "fighting" is merely a nice batch of extra icing on the big cake of Martial Arts. All of my other teachers required the same.....form practice every day, over and over. Drills practice, over and over. Fighting techniques, sometimes brutal, over and over. My teachers expected "perfect practice", not just plain old practice. My teachers expected that we adhere to good effort in anything, no matter what. I knew that in time, all that effort would someday make sense. There were days I puked in the corner from the effort of class. Days were I couldn't lift my legs, some fainting spells, and lots of contusions. It was only after these many years did I realize that the long journeys down these sometimes bruisy and bloody paths, whittled down everything that wasn't useful to me: arrogance, anger, envy, jealousy, hate, self-loathing, laziness, pretentiousness, discrimination, selfishness, etc etc. I began to get glimpses of what really makes "me".

For so long, I merely "danced" and jumped around "like a puppet". I still do, But I'd like to think, that I can at least catch myself doing so, and get right back to the business of practicing well, not just merely practicing moves. And....not trip over my own two feet!

(However, just for the record, although I see goal setting, confident students when they try to ask me for more forms, our Dojo etiquette is "Do not ask. you'll be taught, don't worry")

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