The inspiration for this post was actually a page on my website for my own martial art classes in Midsomer Norton. I have a “Why Karate?” page. Admittedly this page is a bit biased towards Karate, but then it is my school that I’m trying to promote, not anybody else’s. However, much of what I wrote on that page applies to all traditional martial arts, so I thought I’d expand upon it and share my thoughts here with the wider martial arts community!
Apart from the obvious need for self protection throughout history, there are many good reasons why martial arts have been around for thousands of years and are now practised by millions of people all over the world today. They’re a great tool for development of mind, body and spirit! But what does that actually mean. “Mind, body and spirit” is a phrase that we often hear associated with martial arts, but it is not often defined in any depth. It’s often a throw away line on promotional material, then seldom talked about again after somebody actually joins up!
We’ll start with body as it’s the most straight forward to understand. Martial arts obviously exercise all the main muscle groups and joints of the body; improving your health, fitness, strength, flexibility, balance and co-ordination. When taught right, it also trains the core muscles, teaches you to breathe more efficiently and to relax your body. Most physical activities have some or several of those benefits, but few have all of them.
Many years ago, my brother taught me to ski. He had taught several people before, but was amazed how fast I picked it up. I picked it up fast for 2 reasons. Firstly, as a martial artist, I’m used to putting my body into in whatever position I’m told to. We have a higher degree of body awareness than most other people. Maybe gymnasts or dancers can match us on that score, but not many other physical activities can.
Secondly, I had little to no fear of falling over, having done some Judo as a child and take-downs as an adult in Karate. If I fell I stayed relaxed and didn’t hurt myself. This lack of fear meant I could push myself that bit more and by doing so pick up the skills faster. Somebody who does have that fear of falling would be more cautious, therefore not pushing themselves to develop their skills so quickly. After about 3 days, I will admit to being a bit sore from falling so much, but also, I was no longer falling nearly so often as I had developed quickly enough to dramatically reduce the number of falls.
I have a lady that trains with me, who is 69 and has Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties. It’s a condition she’s had most of her life. Since focusing on the diaphragmatic breathing with her technique her condition has improved. She recently had it confirmed by her doctor that despite losing about 7% lung capacity (which was to be expected), she was actually breathing more efficiently and absorbing oxygen better. This was due to having more control of her diaphragm allowing her to breathe more deeply into the lung. Because of this, she’s also been able to reduce the amount of medication (steroids) that she takes and is on the lowest level of medication that she’s been on for decades.
How long has it taken her to achieve this. She’s been Karate training for about 2 years and will soon be going for purple and white belt (4th Kyu). She has by the way been active all her life despite her condition, but it was only her Karate training that made this level of improvement.
So benefits for the body are quite wide ranging!
Traditional martial arts are a long term training system, not a quick fix! Movements are drilled over and over to “program” efficient body mechanics and body structures into the muscle memory (neural pathways), so that they can be reliably called upon under pressure. This takes time and teaches us the more mind based attributes such as patience, focus, dedication and attention to fine detail.
The focus and single mindedness required becomes a kind of “moving meditation”, pushing out other thoughts. As with actual meditation, over time this actually has the side effect of calming the mind as it builds confidence and helps to silence that inner voice which is usually negative. It teaches us to become aware of our bodies, to “feel inside”. Without having to look we should know if our reaction hand is on the hip or not, the position of our rear foot, is our attacking/defending arm in the correct alignment, is the hand the correct distance from the body, is the shoulder relaxed and bedded down, are we correctly balanced? Details such as these should be able to be felt, rather than having to look. We should also feel if the movement is fluid, sharp and powerful. This feeling of our own movement and alignments is where we train ourselves to become self-aware and increase the mind/body link.
There is an old saying in Karate (I assume in other martial arts too)! Before you can control somebody else in a fight, you have to be able to control yourself. And this is where the self awareness comes in and where mind and body are linked. The mind has to be aware of the where every body part is, it needs to be aware of the body’s balance and what the body is doing. This awareness becomes automatic after a while, which allows for very quick responses to situations. If you are caught for example by a surprise attack, it’s not easy for the mind to get the body to move appropriately if the mind does not fully know where all the body parts are or what they are doing. When the mind is aware of these things (even if its just subconsciously), it is easier for the mind to find an appropriate counter reaction. Think of it this way; if you are going on a journey, it easier to get to your destination if you know where you’re starting from?
Traditional martial arts always continue to push us and as we improve so the level at which we are pushed is increased. Partner work for example is gradually increased in intensity as appropriate to the students progress and readiness. If we look at say pre-arranged sparring drills, high grades for example, although they maintain the etiquette, often look like they want to kill each other. Of course they very seldom ever hurt each other as it’s pre-arranged and both parties know what’s happening, but there is a high degree of emotional intensity in the exercise (when done right). This is one the strongest areas where the spirit is forged as we learn to deal with hostility and aggression directed at us, albeit in a controlled and safe manner. We learn to deal with aggression, we learn not to look away, we learn to deal with that intense/aggressive stare, we learn not to show fear and we learn to project our own ferocity. Most importantly of all, we learn to feel ferocity yet control it at the same time.
Recently, another black belt and I demonstrated semi free sparring to the children’s class, then I asked if any of them had any questions. One of them asked, “why are you so violent”?
I had to smile. I asked him, are either of us hurt? No! I explained that it’s not just a physical exercise, it’s a mental exercise too. The emotional intensity helps prepare us mentally. We get used to somebody projecting a hostile, aggressive demeanour towards us, so when it happens with say a bully on the street, we’re not quite so phased by it as we’ve faced it many times in our training! Of course reality based martial arts does this even more efficiently, but it is still there within traditional martial arts albeit in a more formal format.
Even in basics and kata/forms/patterns, we should put that emotional intensity into each movement for the same reason. There is a famous quote by Funakoshi:-
“You must be deadly serious in training. When I say that, I do not mean that you should be reasonably diligent or moderately in earnest. I mean that your opponent must always be present in your mind, whether you sit or stand or walk or raise your arms”.
This is where the spirit is developed as fear is faced and replaced with determination and a single minded will to succeed. I remember soon after a passed my 1st Dan and was sparring with my Sensei. As it came time to change partners, he smiled and said quietly to me, “what happened to that green belt that I used to kick all over the place”? I was dead chuffed. He wasn’t just acknowledging my improved technical ability, but my improved spirit to go toe to toe with him. I still wasn’t really a match for him yet, but I was going for it anyway and making him work for it.
I had a similar experience with one of my 1st Dan’s recently when I felt him really determinedly going for me. Not in a vicious way, but determined not back down and without fear of my counter attack. This does not just come from good technique, this is spirit! I had never seen him so fearless and I was really proud of him seeing that spirit coming through.
Traditional martial arts emphasise respect, which is so often missing from modern sport based martial arts where competitors insult, threaten and abuse each other. Not good role models for kids.
Habitually treating fellow students/instructors with respect and receiving respect back from them, not only makes the student a more productive member of school/society, but is a self defence skill in itself. People are less likely to want to fight you when you treat them with respect! Also, the students confidence and self worth increases (especially children) when they are continually treated with respect from others.
Predators can usually sense lack of self esteem when looking to select a victim as they intuitively know that such a person will likely not put up much of a fight. So the air of confidence that somebody has when they have good self esteem, when they know they can handle themselves, is in itself a deterrent in the predators selection process. But as a supplement to this, is that when somebody is habitually treated with respect, which in turn increases their self esteem, this too also has a small role to play as a deterrent in the predators selection process.
Traditional Martial Arts Vs Modern Martial Arts
This part is just my opinion and I’m sure many will disagree with me. But I’ll make my case and you can draw your own conclusion!
How often do you see an advert that goes something like this, “no flowery forms, no prearranged drills, no marching up and down punching the air; just simple, effective, easy to learn realistic street defence”.
Traditional martial arts take a time to learn the body mechanics and structures, which is why we practice basics and kata/patterns/forms so much. Then when we are reasonably adept at them, we should learn how to apply them in an effective, realistic, streetwise manner.
Many of the modern methods go straight into the effective, realistic, streetwise manner without studying the body structures or mechanics in much depth. This is why they always claim to be more effective and quick and easy to learn.
Now I will admit that there are many traditional martial artists who learn the body structures and mechanics, but get stuck in the form without really progressing to realistic functionality. This is where some of the criticism levelled at us is actually well founded.
All other things being equal, I’d say that somebody learning a modern reality based martial art will become more effective at self protection in the short term then somebody learning traditional martial arts. However, when the traditional martial artist sticks at their training and assuming that they do actually progress to learn the effective applied side of their art; I’d say that in the long term they have a better self protection capability as they have a structure and way of moving that is very hard for anybody else to match.
Also, because we do train those aspects that modern martial arts boast that they have taken out, we get more of the mind and spirit development discussed above. And that does make a difference, not only to us as people but also subtly to our self protection ability.
That said, with their focus on street effectiveness and direct approach, I’d say that these modern arts are an excellent supplement to traditional martial arts as they give us extra ideas on how to apply our own arts in a more effective way, so don’t write them off! So much knowledge has been lost in most traditional martial arts, that learning these modern arts could well be a good way for many to bridge the gap.
There is of course a lot more to it then this and we could write a whole book on the subject. This is just to give an overview. If you found it useful please share it with your training partners and leave a comment below!