Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Breathing, Standing, and Walking

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. 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Intensive Hsing-I Ch’uan Seminar in East Lansing, Michigan

The Internal Arts Association of Michigan will be holding a "Hsing I Ch'uan Intensive" Seminar on Saturday, August 28th. This will be an all-day event from Noon to 6:30pm.

Please see for more information!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ettiquette; Rei; the Bow

Traditional martial arts, particularly those of Japanese origin, are structured within a framework of foreign ceremony and intricate formality that is open to the charge of being outdated and upheld by the pedantic. Such modes of conduct are certainly archaic, but they are an inherent characteristic of the martial discipline, and are as important to the field as body mechanics and tactical know-how. 

Why? The easy answer is tradition, but it is not a very good one. To simply mimic the actions of those who came before us without import is perhaps a waste of time. Were tradition the only reason to adhere to dojo protocol, I'd be arguing on the other side of the fence. Etiquette develops necessarily, not aimlessly. The evolution of culture and ritual is a symbiosis. 

The most prolific gesture throughout the Asian martial arts is of course the bow. Our Western counterpart is the handshake, but the bow and the handshake engender slightly different connotations. A handshake implies mutual balance and position — both parties stand upright and converge eye-to-eye. A proper bow bends from the waist, displacing the balance forward and lowering the line of vision. This gesture implies deference, which is critical in the martial setting. 

The bow cannot be neglected. It must always be sincere. Great care and fastidious effort must be poured into its refinement, because the bare-bones, primordial implementation of physical martial technique is fierce: We hit each other, we choke each other, we toss each other to the ground; we swing sticks, brandish swords and exchange a gamut of sophisticated bodily punishment. Without an honest and sincere demonstration of respect before and after an exchange, before and after class, we risk the creation of a contentious environment that promotes brawling and discourages mutual benefit. In a dojo, that environment makes no sense. In a military, that environment enkindles mutiny. 

This concept is not too difficult to grasp, and most martial artists get it. But what about bowing to inanimate objects? Bowing to the shomen or to our weapons seems to suggest a religious or even cultish connotation to those viewing from the outside in, and indeed I have assuaged skeptical newcomers and concerned parents re the topic. Amusingly, the word "heathen" once surfaced during a discussion with an unhappy mother. 

The word dojo is composed of two Chinese characters: do, which means "road," "path" or "way;" and jo, which means "place." Dojo, then, literally means "the place for finding the way." We do not bow to the shomen and those who came before in order to idolize it or them — our bow is an acknowledgement of the setting we are in, and an expression of thanks for what was left to us. It's like hitting a reset button on the brain that clears our memory banks of excess flotsam: Deferential focus at the beginning of the task, deferential thanks at the end. 

So why do we bow to our weapons? Why do we bow, for instance, to the sword? I have heard much propaganda that the sword was considered the soul of the samurai, that his life depended on it's maintenance, and therefore it was critical to his profession. This information seems accurate enough, but it is no longer the case today. The likelihood that my fate or your fate is going to be determined by a a clash of polished razor blades three feet in length is no more than goofy at best. Today we bow to the sword because it is essential to our training. Without the sword, or whatever weapon we practice, we could not study the art. This is true even for art forms wherein one's body mechanics persist regardless of armament — such as Kali or Arnis — because the weapon teaches the empty-hand techniques just as much as the empty-hand techniques teach the weapon. The weapon must therefore be cared for, kept up, and handled with respect, just like those warriors who employed it in the past. 

And in every case, the study begins and ends with deference. What better way to engage in the praxis of learning?