Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Martial Arts As A Transformative Process

So I've been involved with martial arts since I was seventeen. Not constantly, mind you. What with moving around from here to there, and studying and working and everything there were gaps. From time to time.

Mostly I've practised ju-jitsu. I started with judo, in my first year at university, and I loved it. But it happened on a Monday night, and the next year my timetable changed, so I couldn't go on with judo. However, I'd heard that ju-jitsu was similar, so I found the class taught by sensei (now shihan) Mark Haseman at Milton.

In short order, I was a convert. Ju-jitsu didn't involve as much sheer, bloody-minded physical hard work as judo - but it was infinitely sneakier, nastier, and more efficient. As taught by sensei Haseman, it was a flexible, adaptable and astonishingly deadly practice of self-defense.

In the years that followed, I did most of my training under sensei Haseman, and he remains one of the most remarkable individuals I've met through the martial arts. Yet it wasn't just the teacher. What I enjoyed about ju-jitsu then, as now, is the constant challenge it presents. Sensei Haseman's approach was holistic, aimed at incorporating functional techniques and placing them in a framework of practical principles designed to maximise your chances of being able to avoid, deflect, or simply survive the possibility of physical violence.

The list of techniques is way too long to even start. But to give you some idea, back then just to do a full brown belt you had to have solid command over all the forty basic judo throws, plus the strangles, the hold-downs and the groundfighting technique. You also had to have essentially the same range of striking, blocking and kicking techniques that a black belt in something like Shotokan Karate might have. You also had to have the footwork and evasive body movements (tai-sabaki) of an Aikido practitioner, plus a range of armlocks, wristlocks, shoulderlocks and other joint-locking techniques, both standing and on the ground. You had to be able to name and locate all the major bones, muscles, organs and joints of the body. You had to be able to show attacks designed to work against something like twenty different nerve and pressure points, and explain the effect of each attack. Oh - and you needed a St John's Ambulance Certificate in First Aid, too.

That's brown belt, in case you didn't notice. I didn't mention all the free-sparring. And the judo-style randori. And the ground-fighting. And I didn't list all the self-defense stuff: the defenses against knives, sticks, chains, chairs, axes, pistols, broken bottles, multiple attackers, surprise attacks, attacks on the ground... seriously. You did a full brown belt in three separate stages. Good damned thing.

Black belt? Well. All of that, but more, and with more intensity. And all in one grading, not three. You want to be nice and polite to anybody who's done a black belt under Mark Haseman.

Anyway, you see the point. Big curriculum, very challenging. The idea is to keep throwing technique at you until it blurs, and eventually, you start understanding the principles. Moving your body at the right time, in the right way. Practice long enough, and technique grows out of the basic principles, to meet the situation as required. It's endless, and it's challenging, and to this day I find it deeply interesting and rewarding.

I've tackled a few other arts along the way, of course. At various times I've held lower to middle-level gradings in aikido, a version of kung fu, a version of silat, and a version of karate. Currently I'm also practising Iaido. And why not? Ju-jitsu is adaptable. I've stolen the quick, flowing hand techiques that I met in kung fu, and I've kept some of the aikido body movement. And even though breaking boards isn't part of ju-jitsu as such, I saw how the students responded to it in karate, and brought it along for the kids that I teach... and they love it. And I use padded boffer-style swords to encourage the younger kids to duel with sword technique lifted straight out of aikido, and I stole some of the silat approach to changing the height of your attacks rapidly, and so forth. Always something good to learn.

When I got into martial arts, it was because I was a skinny, smart, mouthy kid from the sticks, used to being hassled by mouthbreathers and inbreds for no better reason than the fact that I could use words of more than two syllables. I was tired of being a target, and I wanted a way to discourage potential trouble.

I got a lot more.

You hear a lot about the 'confidence' that comes from martial training. And it is important, in terms of defense. When you're comfortable with the possibility of violence, and you're not intimidated by the prospect of aggression, you gain a relaxed quality that somehow tells the mouthbreathers that you're not really a target any more. (This isn't surmise. A study was done many years ago, on muggers. They showed a bunch of 'professional muggers' a series of photos, and asked them to choose victims. The level of agreement in their choices was extremely high. The muggers couldn't explain what it was about the 'victims' that made them likely targets - but they all saw something. So... simply learning not to be a victim turns away a lot of trouble immediately.)

But there's more to it than simple physical confidence. I think ju-jitsu was the first thing in my life that I really stuck with. And when you do it long enough, eventually all those crazy things you see the martial artists doing stop being crazy, and start being... well, just something you can do, if you want.

I can break a brick with my fist. I've done it. Yeah, it hurt. But it didn't break my hand, or even really leave a bruise.

I can throw a full-strength punch at a target - like a brick wall - and stop the punch absolutely dead cold within 5 mm of the surface. I can do the same thing with a kick. I can wrestleand throw while blindfolded far better than most people can with all their senses at once. I can fall, dive, or roll on concrete or tarmac and get up unscathed. I've had my jaw cracked by a wild punch, and all it did was piss me off; within limits, pain is just something you deal with, not something that controls or disables you.

There's a lot more, but you get the idea. But the real heart of it is learning that a lot of your own limits are illusory. If you can break one brick... maybe you can break two? Or three? Who knows? If you can kick as high as your head... maybe if you just add a jump and get the timing right, you can kick even higher. If you can break boards with your hand... maybe you can do it while holding an egg? (I've gotta try that. I saw footage of Jackie Chan doing it, and I have totally got to give it a try.)

What I'm saying is: like no other practice I know, a good martial art is transformative. You learn with every part of your body. You work on strength, speed, accuracy, balance, and confidence. You learn to practice alertness and observation. You learn to 'read' other people - their balance, their expressions, their clothes and language and actions and affect. You take on board an ocean of technique which can never be perfected... you just keep refining it and refining it until the errors are smaller and smaller.

And with all this learning and refining and all this 'taking control', your attitude to the world changes. It has to.

I've seen fat, unhappy kids learn to fall, roll, and wrestle like demons, and make friends in the process. I've seen small, skinny kids put their fist through a pine plank, and turn into wide-eyed little warriors, astonished and proud of their own accomplishments. I've watched a kid with physical disabilities learn to do a good, clean forward roll -- and then terrify his mother by happily showing off his new achievement at every opportunity.

There's a woman at the class right now. She's got kids, and she's moving towards middle age. She was tentative and nervous about starting, but tonight she did her second grading, and did it well. She's had to battle herself, almost, every step of the way - mostly her own reluctance to believe that she can do this crazy shit. But she's discovered that she can fall, and roll, and move, and get up again. She's discovered that she can dodge a kick, deflect a fist, and throw a man nigh twice her size over her hip. She's discovered that snapping a pine plank isn't difficult - and that she can do it without breaking her hand. She's had to adapt to the fact that she's training with kids less than half her age, some of whom can learn this stuff much more quickly than she does...

But since coming along, she's also taken up the guitar, and gone back to studying, and a host of other minor things. And that's what I'm getting at. I claim absolutely no credit for any of these other things. She's done them entirely for herself. But... once you've discovered that what looks impossible is just something you do by practice, training, concentration and determination, why - suddenly, all those hundreds of other things you thought you could never do start to look a lot closer than before. A good martial art teaches you the habit of overcoming your own doubts, and marshalling your resources so that you can reach farther than you ever thought.

And maybe the best thing about it is that when you get to be good enough at it, you can teach it to other people and watch them change and grow, too. Because - well, while breaking a pine plank is no big deal, and doesn't make you a martial arts genius... seeing the amazement on the face of a student who does that for the very first time is a really humbling, wonderful experience. You can see it, right there in their eyes: I did it! That was me! And -- if I can do that, what else can I do?

And that, there: that's what a human being should be.


  1. Yes I wish I'd kept on with martial arts. Fooled about a bit with Kyokoshin Karate, and some Wing Chun stuff a mate taught me, but never serious.

    Breaking a board whilst holding an that would take some control. The sympathetic response would be to crush the egg whilst punching - hard to overcome that. I used to teach people pistol shooting (police, Army and RAAF), and advised people to clench their empty fist when shooting one handed, in order to tighten up the grip with the shooting hand, and aid weapon control. But to separate the punching and the gently holding the egg, that would be bloody hard!

  2. Mr Chan didn't use a punch, as such. He curled the egg in his hand, then used a downward 'chop' type strike. In fact, he was actually breaking a slab of concrete (nice and long and narrow, mind you) and I noticed that he transferred the point of contact more towards the wrist than usual.

    I'll have a crack at this - so to speak! - but I expect that with pine planks, I should be able keep the egg intact with an action similar to Mr Chan's... hopefully. In any case, it's in interesting exercise in control.

  3. Ooooh right - I thought it was hold egg in one hand, break board/block of concrete with the other - hence my reference to sympathetic response. Holding the egg and breaking the whatever with the same hand, now THAT'S some feat!

  4. Took me a while to catch up with this post, but I'm glad I did. I can only applaud everything you've said here.

  5. It's one of those realisations you can only acquire after a long, long period of involvement. When you start, you're just trying to acquire technique and fitness, and to look less like a clueless git. Even later, when you've got some of that technique and you're not so clueless, there's still more to learn, still people higher up the ladder, always that question of whether you're "doing it right".

    It's not until you've been at it long enough that it's simply part of your life that you can look past that, and see what else it has been doing to you and to the people around you. Which is ironic, really - because the stuff you acquire early and deliberately is possibly the least important. But of course, you have to have it before you can go farther...