Think “Martial Arts.”
What comes to mind? Dojo and dogi? Punches, kicks, joint-locks and throws? Ripped Asian dudes duking it out in a bloody fusillade of fisticuffs and meteoric death blows? Yeah, that’s certainly the fun stuff, but I am going to speculate it is not the heart of the matter. I would argue, in fact, that the combative abilities and amazing feats of the true, mastered martial artists ramify from a simple, underlying source.
Recently at the Japanese Martial Arts Center, Nicklaus Suino Sensei ended a Nihon Jujutsu session with a reminder that the martial arts are all about the fundamentals. He made reference to this military maxim: There are no advanced techniques; only advanced applications of the basics. There is so much wisdom in this, and his explanation reminded me of my kung fu teacher, Sifu Douglas Lawrence of the Internal Arts Association of Michigan, who often remarks with some levity that he is really just showing us how to breathe, stand and walk. Sifu Lawrence’s new students tend to chortle agreeably at the apparent joke: because everyone knows how to breathe, stand and walk. Right? That may be. But I’m going to be a killjoy here and point out that most people not very good at it.
Visit the local supermarket, gas station, laundromat; note the population of slouched and inverted postures; compare with those that are upright and relaxed; frown disappointedly at the ratio. I hate to broach the genre, but visit the local martial arts school, and admit it: In many cases, the ratios correlate.
The breath and the posture are the two aspects of the martial arts that, regardless of style, should always be kept in mind. How much more so when we are moving! Bad posture promotes bad breathing. Bad breathing ruins stamina. How can one even begin to implement the boundless techniques and gambits of the martial arts when these two components are lacking?
The neat thing is that the breath and posture can always be practiced, wherever you are, whatever you are doing. In The Book of Five Rings, Miymoto Musashi, a famous swordsman of medieval Japan, declares that the martial artist should make the martial body and the everyday body the same. As a martial artist, this is something I endeavor to do. As I type right now, I try to straighten my spine, relax my shoulders, and breathe from my lower abdomen. When I forget my posture, and it caves — like it does when I stumble with words and go crying to the thesaurus — I repair it as soon as I realize it is broken.
To those of you who follow suit: Just don’t get too carried away and do silly stuff like drop into a twist-stance while you’re waiting in line at Meijer. Take my word for it. People will look at you funny, and parents will move their children elsewhere.