When it comes to martial arts most people I’ve encountered think they have at least some basic understanding of the topic. This notion mostly comes from popular culture – movies, TV shows, manga and so on. We usually see a hero that’s a master in a certain martial art, or more often, someone who’s an outsider and has to learn everything from the beginning, overcoming numerous obstacles and challenges, becoming a master in the end. These heroes are more often than not able to physically subdue many attackers at once and ultimately triumph. This sounds awesome, but how much of that can we achieve in our own lives? Is there any truth to it? The answer is yes and no, but the truth is actually much more complicated than you may think.
When you start training in any martial art for the first time in your life, you have to ask yourself why you even do it. Do you want to become stronger and more confident, or do you simply need someone to spar with after a long and stressful day of work? How much time and effort are you willing to invest? Are you only interested in the physical aspect of the training, or can you see there’s actually much more to it? These are all valid questions, and the answers will be different for different people. Everyone has to find their own reasons and motivation, but some basic principles apply to everybody.
According to statistics, at least in the western world and most developed countries, most people never engage in a physical fight in their entire lives. If you practise martial arts as a way to prepare yourself for some physical confrontation, then this is probably a wasted effort. Sure, you can stay fit by training, but you can do this equally well at your local gym. So, why bother at all?
We practise martial arts as a way to live our lives more peacefully. It may sound counterintuitive, mostly because people usually see martial arts techniques as something you use to overcome the attacker. These techniques are indeed useful, but it’s actually very easy to break someone’s arm, even if you have no knowledge of any martial art or technique. The true goal of any martial art is diffusing a potentially dangerous situation so nobody gets hurt, even the attacker if possible. This need not only apply to physical confrontation, you can learn to utilise these principles in your everyday life – at work, at school, in your family, or any situation where any type of confrontation may occur. The main thing you want to take away from this is you do not want to engage in the confrontation. You simply want to change the situation so the attack stops. If there is no attack, there certainly is no need for defence. This can be achieved in numerous ways.
The best sword is kept in its sheath. - attributed to Akira Kurosawa, possibly an old Japanese saying
If we truly want to understand martial arts, we have to understand their origin and the way they developed over time. Here we mostly talk about Japanese martial arts, but the same principles can be applied to most martial arts from around the world.
Nowadays we can simply search online or ask around for a martial arts club or school that practices a certain style we’re interested in, pay a monthly fee and voila – we’ve now begun our martial arts journey. This is a fairly modern occurrence and for the most part in history it was extremely difficult or downright impossible to learn in this way. Martial arts were a matter of life and death, and as such a closely guarded secret inside a family, clan or caste. The people that did get to learn these secret teachings were highly devoted and would often dedicate their entire lives to perfecting their skills. These early martial arts were considered to be quite brutal and unforgiving, both to the trainee and their intended adversary.
One would think that martial arts would most rapidly develop in times of war and conflict, after all they were meant to be used in these circumstances, but it was actually the opposite – martial arts would mostly thrive in times of prolonged peace. These were the times people would live long enough to perfect their skills and pass on what they’ve learned, instead of needlessly dying in battle at a young age along with their secrets. This is how prominent martial arts schools, and later styles, formed. Techniques, along with the underlying understanding that took years to master, were finally able to be passed down to the next generation in sufficient quantity and quality to begin forming complete systems.
In these times of peace developed a certain way of thinking that evolved into a whole new philosophy of life. People began to understand that when two warriors meet in battle, one would have to die along with all the knowledge and experience they’ve gathered their entire lives. Obviously this is something that was best avoided. This gave rise to the “non-fighting” approach to martial arts that is as relevant today as it was hundreds of years ago.
The ultimate aim of martial arts is not having to use them. - Miyamoto Musashi
In time different people took martial arts in different directions, which eventually coalesced into distinct disciplines we recognize today. Many of those were further transformed with development of professional sports and inclusion of rules and categories. True martial arts have no rules and categories, they are no sport and there are no “winners” or “losers”. There are no competitions, but in a sense you constantly compete with yourself. You practices with others, learn from them and help others better themselves.
You may now ask yourself how do you actually achieve all of this, and is it even doable. I won’t lie to you, it is not easy, but it is absolutely doable. First you have to start practising, but that’s not enough. You have to understand why you do what you do, and then do it often.
Most of us are used to the idea of dividing activities into two distinct categories – “physical” and “mental”, or “intellectual”. To our knowledge this dualism was first recorded with ancient philosophers and scientists Pythagoras and Plato, continuing with st. Augustus at the beginning of the middle ages, and Descartes and many others in modern times. This very idea shapes our daily lives to the extent we’re not usually fully aware of.
You may think that practising martial arts falls into the “physical” category, but actually this is not the case. True martial arts were developed without this division in mind, so they can help you better both sides equally. This unification of mind and body is a core principle of every martial art that stayed true to its purpose and meaning. Every motion and every technique has a deeper meaning, one that can help you uncover more secrets of the universe, as well as about yourself. By training with others you deepen this understanding and help others do the same. We may practices the same style or the same techniques, but we as people are not the same, so we may focus on different things in our training. Do this for long enough and you’ll eventually start developing new concepts and ideas, that you can then teach others. This way martial arts constantly develop and improve with people that practice them.
Most Japanese martial arts end with the “-do” character (“dao” or “tao” in Chinese). This character can have different meanings, but it usually depicts the “way” or the “road”. This can literally denote a physical road or a street, but when it comes to martial arts it is usually understood as a philosophical “way” that one takes, and that has no end. You begin your martial arts journey that has no end, you better yourself and those around you and enjoy the ride.
After properly practising martial arts for some time, at some point you will discover you are more confident. Your body will become more flexible along with your mind, your creativity will improve and many tasks you considered tedious may become much easier to accomplish. You won’t engage in disputes nearly as often, and when you do, you’ll handle them effectively. You’ll also be much more at ease knowing that in an unlikely situation you have to physically defend yourself or a loved one, you’ll know how to handle yourself. You will be able to overcome fear more easily.
In your training you will in time encounter something we call “a principle of no resisting”. Apply it properly in your everyday life and you won’t put yourself in situations where you have to fight needlessly. As Bruce Lee famously said – “Be water, my friend”. This principle should not be misunderstood as quietly getting out of the way and letting everyone and anyone have a saying over you. You should absolutely uphold your beliefs and moral values, but do it in a non-threatening and a non-violent way. If you for whatever reason cannot avoid using force, use as little as possible, but don’t let the force be your main or only solution to problems.
Practising martial arts will help you let go of using brute force, aggression and desire to dominate and control. Find a good teacher, but never forget that you are ultimately responsible for your own progress. You of course cannot actually learn martial arts by reading this or any other article, for that you will have to train, but you can gain a more complete understanding of what you need to do to better yourself. Keep practising!