Friday, June 1, 2012

Martial Woo-Woo.

I, like most males out there, have a certain interest for the martial arts.  Even those who never learn a bit of it are at least generally aware enough to find it pretty cool.  The influx of fight flicks from Hong Kong cinema made everybody everywhere want to do chop-socky movies.  Sure it gave us everything from Black Belt Jones to some abomination of a Bollywood flick simply called Karate, but it was hard to escape the draw.  I particularly hold Bruce Lee in pretty high regard, as does pretty much anyone.  What really separated him from others, though, is not just his skill and physical presence, though.  The real mark that he made is that he was one of the first to really intellectualize martial arts.

I know this may seem a bit odd considering the movie image we have of the guy who waxed philosophical about water going into a cup and thereby becoming the cup.  Or the senior in Enter the Dragon who tells one of his junior trainees to feel rather than to think.  If you look at the work he published, and especially at the series of volumes that were collected from his notes after his death, you'll find a pretty hefty amount of collective research, and descriptions of the kinematics of various motions.  There's more than simply saying "here's how you throw a punch"...  it's "here's how you throw a punch, and here's why it works."  Here was a guy who not merely trained and worked out, he analyzed the patterns and structures of several styles, he consumed and distilled the theoretical foundations of Western sports including boxing and bodybuilding, and actually did the hard work and research on the subject well before anybody knew him as the guy who created Jeet Kune Do.

When I studied both aikido and kenjutsu, I did so on the cheap at a community college, and my shihan was a reasonably well-educated lady.  She was the sort to get into the kinematic explanations behind the motions and not into the mysticism of flow of ki/qi energy and so on.  Rather than talk about the harmonizing of souls, she would talk about orthogonal forces to change the momentum of a moving attacker.  But that's actually a little out of the ordinary.  And in fact, when she was stumped for a really solid physics-based explanation, that's when even she would resort to some weird babble like "[imagining] yourself as a tree," and what not.

I imagined myself as a tree and then I expressed imaginary annoyance at the imaginary dog imaginarily peeing on me.  Maybe that was the secret.
There's a lot of mysticism and vitalistic views that permeate martial arts mainly because of its origins.  The martial art called Kalaripayattu, which is generally associated with Kerala, is typically considered the oldest practiced form and it is believed to be the fountainhead from which all other forms evolved.  At the same time, how it moved through Eastern and Southeast Asia is a history that ties martial arts closely to the spread of Buddhism.  And if you look at the practice of Kalari, you'll see that it is steeped heavily in spiritual claptrap, pseudoscientific medicine, and religion, in addition to actual training.  It is a pretty similar story in the far East as well.  The vitalistic views of life and health that permeated the East made their way into martial arts over the centuries as new forms and theories were developed, and each of them somehow connected to the idea of souls, life energy, and somehow being able to control it.  It still dominates a lot of how people think about and teach martial arts, and it was nonsense then, and it's still nonsense now.

There's a common sentiment, particularly among older practitioners that the elements of Eastern philosophy are key to understanding the martial arts, and a study from a purely kinematics and dynamics standpoint cannot give you a complete mastery of the skills.  I find this most insane and in a certain sense, numbingly arrogant.  I will accept that understanding the philosophy and the history is significant in determining how styles became the way they are, but that is really a question of development of the arts themselves, rather than development of the artists.

Take for example, arts like Taichi quan (the combat form, not the exercise stuff most people think of) or Baji quan, both of which espouse this fanciful image of "borrowing energy from the Earth."  Well, both of these arts are examples of styles that have their more powerful moves involving a shifting of weight and/or lowering the center of gravity for stability.  Baji, in particular, has this characteristic "stomp" action that comes with sudden drops in the center of gravity.  That combined with a lot of forward leaps from a deep crouch makes for its primary mechanism to close the distance between yourself and your opponent.  These are all reasonable and otherwise sensible approaches to solving certain problems that come up in the course of fighting.  "Borrowing energy from the Earth" may be a decent metaphor for the idea of stabilizing yourself against the ground and using that lower center of gravity to pull out more power from the combination of upper and lower body strength -- something that is well-studied in other styles of fighting as well -- but going beyond putting it forth as a metaphor and saying that it somehow holds the true secret to the art is nonsense.  When you say that intellectual and mechanical study gives an incomplete understanding, to the effect that there are certain "truths" which cannot be explored through rational means...  you are really saying that you don't understand it yourself.  You don't have enough of a grasp of what's actually happening without adducing some sort of mystical nebulous magical force to explain it.  Does that sound familiar?

It is worth mentioning that different styles have very different views on the same problem.  Most Western forms of boxing view the purpose of a punch very differently than say, Karate or Tae Kwon Do does.  Boxers will throw blends of light and heavy punches, and generally use it to whittle down opponents and build up damage progressively.  But boxing has developed this way because it is a sport, subject to rules and structure, and the competitors are generally standing on relatively similar ground in order to be able to compete in the first place.  Karate, on the other hand, originates from a history of otherwise untrained fighters trying to defend themselves against tougher fighters of far greater experience, which means the goal is to end a fight quickly, leaving little chance for an expert to show his expertise.  You will see a general trend in the types of arts that have this sort of history to drilling and mastery of a relatively small and simple set of motions.  Again, because otherwise untrained practitioners will do better trying to master little than to get reasonably good at a whole lot of things.  The best TKD artists may have a lot of variety, but will still use relatively basic fundamentals in actual combat.

There are times when one might see highly skilled masters perform feats in combat that seem, at the face of it, beyond belief.  Stories you hear about elderly men trouncing young soldiers in combat are really quite plausible.  The gap in skill and experience is the real key here.  It's the sort of story that involves more of the "best and most effective response, executed flawlessly" type of event that can really show the difference a few decades makes.  At the same time, this is part of the reason why it can be difficult to explain.  How do you teach a learning student the difference between his/her imitation of what it is that you are doing when your own execution of the skills are basically second nature?  For people like them, the finer details of execution, the timing of when you shift your weight, the footwork, etc. is the sort of thing they just know on a kinesthetic level (muscle memory, basically), but putting that into words is not so easy...  especially when a teacher can't really step into your body and identify with your proprioception what exactly is right or wrong.  It's hard to remember that there was once a time when it was difficult for you.  This isn't just a martial arts problem, either -- it happens with pretty much anything.  I started programming well over two decades ago...  well before my wife was even born, in fact.  If I tried to teach someone who is new to the field concepts that are pretty well elementary to me, it is easy to forget that this is the sort of thing that was once upon a time, actually difficult for me, because it is now second nature.

When it's not so easy to explain something on a technical level, and especially considering that we're talking about something that is fundamentally physical, so it relies greatly on one's ability to learn by feel.  It's very natural to fall into the trap of describing things in terms of what you yourself are "feeling", making the whole process come off as if holistic without necessarily having to be so.  For example, if you are able to get these finer points of technique and execution a little better, it might end up delivering something more powerful for what was otherwise the same move, and one would likely feel the difference because the movement will technically be that much more efficient as well.  That sounds very close to saying something like "you'll feel the power."  And that's terrible.

Even aside from the teaching aspect, there is also the aspect of one's own personal development.  There is only so far that one can actually get simply by having a complete external understanding of technique and skill.  Intellectual understanding is actually very good for teaching, and it's very good for further developments and improvements to a style, but a student who actually has to think about the exact details of his movements is one who can't really use those same movements in practice.  A move becomes practical once it can be executed very well in a very natural fashion, and that's the sort of thing that only really comes with continuity of training and constant drilling.  There's nothing that really replaces that.  It's a bit silly to really ascribe anything more amazing than mere muscle memory to it.  Having to think about a move or reflecting on a move while your doing it, and second-guessing everything is the sort of thing that induces error and delay and makes you slow.  In that sense, the "don't think, feeeel!!" message is a logical one, though you can see how it is not something that is really universal in its context.  Part of the whole idea of JKD is that the most effective moves are the ones that achieve certain general physical concepts, but are, at the same time, comfortable for the individual.  That is not the same thing as saying that those fundamental physical concepts are not open to rational inquiry.  Why a move in some particular style of martial art works is a rational, scientific question.  There is no magical level to it.

The "magic" that apparently separates students from masters is nothing more than the sheer volume of training and experience they've been through.  Get over it.