Archives for category: martial arts

The last few weeks have been full of two things: transitions and writing. I will post on the prior soon. The blog’s immediate future, however, is focused on the latter activity. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be sharing a lot of under development writing, and I’d love feedback. Though much of it will be related to Anthropology, technology, and media theory, today’s piece is related to Martial Arts.

Our school is in the process of updating its website and I’ve used this as an excuse to write out some ideas that have been developing in my head for quite a while. As you will see, the essay below is written with beginners (or really perspective beginners) in mind, but I hope that there are ideas in it for students at all levels. As always, I’d love feedback on it — especially in terms of tone and suggestions about material to condense or remove outright (as usually it’s longer than I would like).

On Fighting and the Purpose of Martial Arts

The the truth shall set you free (but first it will make you uncomfortable) — anonymous

Since you’ve arrived at this page, you’re most likely interested in learning more about the martial arts and possibly taking lessons. So, let’s have a frank discussion about what you’re getting into:

At some point in your life you probably heard one of the following:

  • The Martial Arts are about peace”
  • or “The Martial Arts are a great workout”
  • or “The purpose of Martial Arts is to improve confidence and focus”
  • or “The purpose of the Martial Arts is to make you into a better person.”

While well meaning, all of these statements distract us from the far simpler, and perhaps uncomfortable, truth:

Martial arts are about learning how to fight.

When you study a martial art you are learning a collection of ideas, strategies, and tools for overcoming physical conflict. When you commit to taking lessons at a good martial arts school, you are learning how to how to hurt someone seriously enough to stop them from hurting you or someone you love.

Motivation and Benefits versus Purpose

Learning how to fight” doesn’t have to be the main reason you take martial arts lessons. Some students at our school primarily study for the fitness and focus benefits. Other students come because they find fulfillment in constantly testing themselves in an environment that unites and challenges both the mind and the body. And many people appreciate the sense of community they find, both with their school and within the larger martial arts community.

All of these are great reasons for getting involved in the martial arts. But you must remember that all of those benefits — improved fitness, increased focus and confidence, making new friends, fun and fulfillment — are all byproducts of diligent study, not the purpose of it. In fact, the dedicated practice of just about any sport or hobby can bring you similar benefits.

If your sole purpose is to get in shape — and you don’t want to learn to fight — you probably are better off taking up to something like running, swimming or weight training, as all of those activities will get you fit much more quickly than the martial arts will. On the other hand, while committing to exercise will get you fit and help you develop a “never quit” attitude — both critical to overcoming conflict — they are not going to teach you how to fight (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

Regardless of your motivation, the purpose of martial arts is to teach you how to fight, and if you commit to studying, you need to accept and commit yourself to that purpose.

Purpose and Responsibility

Martial arts are not all doom and gloom — walk into a good martial arts school during class you’re likely to encounter a positive atmosphere, hear laughter, and see smiles. Understand that fun training environment based on the fact that everyone training has made a serious commitment to learning to fight and each person knows that they are responsible for each other’s safety in multiple ways:

When you become a student of the martial arts, you are placing your trust, and ultimately your safety (and even the safety of your loved ones) in our hands. As instructors, it’s our responsibility to teach you material that will always work for you (and not just us). Self defense that only works if your a world class athlete (or a Feudal warrior) is stuff that will get you hurt.

It’s also your responsibility to do what it takes to learn and execute the material — as good as our instructors are, they can’t fight your battles. You are ultimately responsible for yourself. What we teach are simple ideas and techniques, but that doesn’t mean that they will work without practice or some fitness. The less time you put in, the less likely it is to work.

Studying the martial arts — learning to fight — also means taking responsibility for the safety of others in two ways:

The first is obvious: you’re promising not to hurt each other. In order to learning how to do varying amounts of damage to the human body, you need a body to experiment and practice on. And, believe it or not, to understand the martial arts you also need to have your body practiced on. Working with a partner means controlling your actions to keep both of you safe during training.

The second responsibility to your partner is less talked about but equally important: you are also promising to help each other get better. If your partner is “letting” you escape, you only think you learning that escape. If you refuse to let your partner hit you during a controlled drill, you not only are not learning what it means to be hit, your preventing your partner truly learning how to hit. Imperfect practice guarantees bad things for both of you when push-​comes-​to-​shove.

This is serious stuff. The only way for everyone to stay safe, both inside and outside of the school, is for everyone to remember that martial arts dealing with dangerous material (btw, most physical activities involve some danger, for example, swimming always inherently involves the risk of drowning). If everyone isn’t on the same page, people can get hurt, or worse, learn bad habits that can literally hurt them (or lead to getting hurt) down the line.

Assertiveness versus Aggressiveness

You can’t learn to swim without getting wet. But that doesn’t mean that you have to live in the water. Likewise, you can’t learn martial arts without learning how to hurt people, but that doesn’t mean you must become a violent person. Rather, the work of learning a martial art — practicing and perfecting a wide range of physical and mental skills — develops in you a self-​awareness and self-​control that can help you become more assertive.

Being assertive — recognizing and accepting that you always have the power (and responsibility) of choice — is the key to controlling your life. If you choose to take lessons and choose to learn, you are taking the first steps in learning to control yourself. Gaining control over yourself positions you to control your response to the situations and conflicts you find yourself in; that could mean verbally defusing a situation; it could also mean physically attacking your attacker. The key thing to understand is that taking control means consciously choosing and committing to act — in other words asserting yourself.

Learning a martial art provides you with both the framework to help make that choice and the “flight-​time” — practice under pressure — to learn to trust yourself to make the best choice for that situation. As our head instructor says: “a key focus of the martial arts is developing tools for conflict resolution.”

Final thoughts

Ultimately the bottom line is this: If you commit to learning a martial art, in addition to punches and kicks, you will learn a lot about yourself; you will become more fit, more confident and more assertive; and, along the way, you will have a lot of fun. But that self-​improvement can only come if you are ready and willing to fight for it — and that means being ready and willing to learn how to fight.

When it comes to practicing the martial arts, gravel changes everything… it really does.

Our martial arts school, Renaissance Martial Arts, recently moved to a new location in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts. Though I knew it was coming for a while, aspects of the move have been tough. Our previous space, 34 Elton Street, was our program’s “home,” even if it wasn’t technically our first space.

Renaissance Martial Arts officially started1 in 1999 in the backroom of a Karate school in Henrietta. We moved to Elton in 2002. When we got there the space, which had last been used for some sort of electronics work, was completely run down. Our first three months were spent renovating — removing a drop ceiling, building changing rooms, refinishing the floor after first digging out all of the little pieces of wire and sodder embedded in it. We literally built the school ourselves.

Times change, and accepting hard realities, we change with them. A core tenant of our approach to the martial arts is the concept of “adaptive flow.” And adapting always involves movement — sometimes even literally moving to a new home.

And that gets me to our new home at 46 Sager Drive and gravel.

[An arial view of our new home, and the alley along side of it]

Though the size of the (traditional) training floor is smaller than at Elton Street, 46 Sager Drive offers a staggering range of “supplemental” training spaces. For example, a few weeks ago, Sifu Mark (Sifu being the title for “instructor” in the Chinese martial arts) helped us understand what it means to work our backs “to the wall” by holding a number of classes in the narrow hallway that runs alongside the school. Yesterday he held class for the first time in another of our supplemental spaces — the alley directly to the right of our building (picture courtesy of Google Maps).

Martial Artists often talk about the dangerous environment of “the street” — hard pavement, gravel, broken glass (some, tongue-​firmly-​in-​cheek add “lava” to the list). We all accept that it’s bad news. But I suspect that only a few have had the experience of actually practicing in that environment.

Gravel changes everything. The same can be said for brick walls, chain linked fences, dumpsters, telephone poles, and a ton of other environmental elements.

It changes one’s willingness to “take a fall.” I’m a teaching assistant — in the martial arts that’s a euphemism for punching dummy — and one of my responsibilities is to be the one that things are demonstrated on. In other words, I get thrown around a lot on a lot of different surfaces — mats, grass, indoor tracks, astro-​turf, hardwood floors, and even smooth cement. But in that alley, standing on rough pavement and gravel, when faced with the idea of taking any sort of breakfall my body and mind responded with a resounding “hell no.”2

Gravel changes the way one stands and moves. I can’t count the number of times I slipped and skidded. This usually happened while working a partner drill, meaning that in many cases this was happening at the “worst possible time” — i.e. when I was trying to get out of path of an attack. And as bad as the momentary lose of physical stability was, what was worse was the loss of mental stability. In that “oh crap, I’m slipping on gravel moment” my mind all too often focused on me slipping versus the person trying to punch me in the face.

Brick walls change things too.

One of the exercises we worked dealt with getting backed into a wall. The challenge was to “accept” (for the purposes of the drill) that you are so focused on the person who is threatening you that you unintentionally back yourself into the wall. The goal here is not so much to hit the wall, as to learn what to do when you do “hit”, or at least bump into, the unexpected barrier. Try as I might, I could not make myself unknowingly back into that all too real wall behind me when there was a “threat” in front of me.3 Like the breakfall, this is the type of thing I’d have no problem doing inside the “safe” environment of a traditional classroom.

Gravel changes everything.

But it also changes nothing.

It changes nothing, because, at the end of the day, we were still thinking, working, and practicing the same ideas and techniques we worked in the normal classroom. Despite harder and, at times, slipperier surfaces, punches were still punches, kicks were still kicks, and the human bodies involved still all had one head, two arms, and two legs, all connected by and to a central spine. Because everyone, new and old student alike, used those concepts that have been driven into us through countless repetitions on our usual, traditional, training floor, we all transitioned with relative ease to the uncomfortable brick and gravel of that alley.

We’re all looking forward to going back to train there soon (not to mention bragging to the people who missed class that we — and not them — got the chance to train in the alley. That’s what happens when you miss class).

I’ll always miss our old home, but experiences like last night’s show me how much there is to love about our new one. More importantly, they serve as a reminder that who we are — the fundamentals of our practice and our school, even each of us as students of the martial arts — don’t change just because our environment does. If they had then they wouldn’t be fundamentals.

  1. I say officially because prior to that we trained in a traditional “underground” way, having no name, gaining students through word of mouth, and making our home in basements and backyards. []
  2. The response, a physical versus a verbal one, from the Sifu was a simply “yes, you will” was delivered by gently depositing me to the hard pavement at the end of a demonstration. You can’t always get what you want… but you find sometimes you get what you need []
  3. Instead, I’d take a few “natural” steps backward and then shift into a more “tactical” way of backing up while gaging how much space I had. Note that from an application point of view, this is a good thing. But from a training point-​of-​view, my inability to control myself didn’t allow me to practice the drill as intended. That’s a not-​so-​good-​thing.

    That inability to control myself also displayed, well, an inability to control, or rather regulate, myself — to actively be in the moment rather than letting habits drive me. Again, in push-​comes-​to-​shove application, not a bad thing, but to learn and progress you need to be able to put even good habits aside at times. []

Matt, you look comfortable…”

Uh-​oh. That can’t be good.

Those words were spoken by Mark, my friend and martial arts instructor, in the middle of a workout last night. While I’ve been studying with Mark for more than a decade, its been difficult for me to give it the time it deserves over the last few years. Since I’ve been at Cornell, I’m lucky if I get in one workout a week.

Still this wasn’t the comment I was expecting. Out of shape? Sure. Rusty? Definitely. Looking like I can’t punch my way out of wet paper bag? Harsh, but unfortunately close to the truth. But comfortable? WTF? None of what I’m doing currently feels comfortable.

Sifu, exactly what do you mean by comfortable?” I asked.

It’s your stance…”

What about it?”

It’s all wrong. Your sitting on your back leg, you hips are shifted forward… you look comfortable.”

Oh… its that bad.

Losing one’s stance is a cardinal sin in the martial arts. Instructors drill into students that even in the most dynamic of martial arts, everything starts and returns to stance. Many incorrectly interpret this to mean that a stance as a static position, or worse, a moment of respite. Instead, one’s stance needs to exemplify dynamic stillness, allowing one the freedom of movement and action, of initiation, of response. If you don’t have stance, then you’ve lost the basis of everything that you do. Put simply, if your stance is crap, chances are everything else is too.

Sorry Sifu. Can you help me find my stance again?”

And he did. It took a little while. Part of the problem is that I was “mashing up” the stances of different arts I’ve studied over the years. But part of the problem was a misunderstanding on my part.

Sifu, I thought part of the process of making the stance your own is to get comfortable in it.”

Ah… no. Your stance should be familiar, but never comfortable.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that since last night. It seems like one of those lessons that goes far beyond the martial arts. In my work at Cornell, and elsewhere, I often get down on myself because it feels like I’m fighting too hard to make things work. I often ask myself why isn’t this easier? But as with my stance, I need to abandon hopes (or promises) of comfort. After all, all comfort and ease provide is a false sense of security. It seems to me that familiarity is a better ideal to pursue.

Now, familiarity isn’t necessary a panacea. And it’s clear that one can get comfortably familiar with the wrong thing, see the beginning of this. But familiarity tethered to the “now” through work, if not discomfort — that seems like a particularly productive mode of being (in the world).

Since this is Friday, it means I’ve made it through the first week of PhD studies and my shifted role at RIT. So far things are going well. I really appreciate the “breathing room” that the semester system is giving me to study. At this point at RIT or Chicago I’d be thinking “oh crap, we’re already 10% of the way through the class!” 1/​15 doesn’t seem anywhere as bad (also because I know there are days off in there).

I’m in the process of preparing to meet with this week’s colloquium presenter — Adam Reed of St. Andrews University. He’s published two good articles on blogging and, reading them, I realized that I haven’t posted since school began.

Um… so… that’s about it. Things are going well. I’m starting to get the rhythm of this down. Which is good.

This past weekend was the Renaissance Martial Arts festival, an event we’ve been running out of our Kung Fu school for the past 7 years. Below is a slide show of pictures from the festival. Since I was typically behind the camera I only appear in one of these pictures.

Flickr continues to impress me. While it has some draw backs, galleries that used to take me hours, if not days, come together in under 60 minutes. Which is a nice thing, especially since my work as the RMA webmaster is purely voluntary.