Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Traditionalism and Innovation in Martial Arts

Traditionalism and innovation in martial arts study and practice is a tricky subject. First of all, we have to ask "what is traditional" in the first place. Every martial art that is practiced today was once "the new kid on the block" somehow differentiating itself from the other martial arts and establishing itself.

The standard curriculums of the large martial arts organizations were established to maintain a certain consistency in the training once the number of students and locations outgrew the grasp of the single head instructor. I don't know what is so traditional about that.

On the other hand, changing things for the sake of change doesn't seem like a very good strategy either. Unless you understand thoroughly what it is you are changing and why, I would think that you're pretty much spinning your wheels.

At the end of the day, your martial arts study is for YOU. It doesn't belong to anyone else. Having learned correctly, it's YOURS.

The following is an excerpt from a blog post at the Aikido Journal. While it was written specifically for aikido students, I think it applies equally well to everyone who studies a martial art. The full article may be read here.

The Martial Artist’s Dilemma: “Traditionalism vs. Innovation,” by Charles Humphrey

“Ueshiba had a powerful physique in his youth. He wasn’t born doing this quasi-no-touch stuff. He went through a whole process to that eventual end.”
I would like to address an issue in martial arts training in general that has bugged my subconscious for some time. It was only recently that I understood it well enough to articulate it clearly. Many of my realizations came, of all places, from undertaking a program of strength training. Shifting my paradigm a little and learning a whole new skill set with which I was relatively unfamiliar helped me get a new perspective on the skill set with which I am more familiar — my core martial arts training.

The issue is one that can only be described as the lack of innovation and logical progression in most training methodologies in the classical martial arts. I have been very frustrated with my training for some years now. Because of this, and I am in the process of trying to recruit training friends who share my perspective with whom I can pursue from my experience and body of personal research into neuroscience, exercise and sport science. This research is by no means extensive, but it doesn’t need to be. The correct approach to martial arts training, indeed any physical skill set, should be obvious. However, I have never found a single group that was following the basic principles of sound training. The closest group I’ve come across that does something close to this is the Systema school and I think this explains the frequently-reported rapid skill increase in Systema.

Now, I am not suggesting everyone drop what they’re doing and go out and study Systema instead of whatever Aikido style they practice or whatever art they do. There’s no need. What makes Systema so effective isn’t that “Systema” as a “style” is the best, it’s just that Vladimir Vasiliev and his crew are highly innovative, humble and questioning in their approach. You don’t need to go Russian style to do this — everything you need is out there in the infosphere. Why are so few martial artists going for this? I think a lot of the reason lies in taking some of the calcification that has set in many Asian martial cultures for granted as some Orientalized mystical necessity.

’s not. If you go spend time in one of what I’ll call the “big three” East Asian countries (China, Japan, Korea), you’ll slowly understand that this calcifying tendency in these cultures is highly pathological and something people struggle with. To oversimplify, the converse is something us “Westerners” in general and North Americans in particular struggle with. Many of us who feel overwhelmed by the constant dizzying array of mental noise in the West end up leaping to the calcified traditionalism of the East as a psychological bulwark against this dizzying tide. The reality is that substituting one’s own cultural shortcomings for those of another is no path to success in one’s life and personal endeavours. I speak as someone who has made precisely this mistake, and is now coming full circle to a kind of fuller realization of what it is I’m doing and how to go about it.

Now, there are those who do this rigid, “I must teach exactly as Sensei such and such taught and never change ANYTHING EVER or the magic won’t work, or O’Sensei won’t appear floating on a cloud to hand me the keys to the universe!” camp. I think a great deal of classicists in martial arts end up in this camp. I generalize, but what else am I to do when writing such an article. Then there is the “I’m going to be like Bruce Lee!” camp that spits on tradition as if it were a poison and generally ends up practicing martial sport…badly. These people fail to really read what Lee was saying (or to understand that he had some serious daemons that were not reflected in his public legacy) in his JKD book admonishing one not to reflexively reject the classical, but to understand its place and limitations. People forget that until relatively late in his life (given that his life ended at age 32), Lee practiced traditional martial arts. This wasn’t a man who jumped out of bed and started doing the Crossfit equivalent of martial arts and then just became awesome. He went through the traditional methods, found some points lacking, and started innovating. Also, to be noticed is the fact that the man made SERIOUS errors in his training and lifestyle. Want proof? He died at 32. Not an example to follow if you want to live long enough to leave something truly useful behind.

The point is that neither of these approaches, in their extremes, is helpful. I’m going to just stick to the “traditionalist” problem because I think most readers of this journal fall into this camp. Let me say that there is nothing wrong with practicing in a strict, traditional way. The attention to detail and basic mapping of traditional kata-based training is excellent. I went through that school quite young and it still amazes me how natural applying a wrist lock is to me even when I don’t really practice that way at the moment. But the traditional curriculum, whether it is the Daito-Ryu system or one of the Aikido schools, is a TOOL that can be used in various ways and with the support of a good general physical preparation (GPP) program.

For example, how many of you cycle your training modules? I have been in a few schools and have never found one where people consistently work on a narrow range of techniques again and again and again (in Japan, China or North America) until they reach the point of diminishing returns and then cycle on to the next one. Everything we know about the nervous system, brain, muscles and skeleton tells us that this is the way to program effective movements into the body.
Elite athletes all use this method (unless they are super gifted freaks) and I’ve never met anyone who does this. Usually the teacher is just kinda going, “Ummm, today we do this.” If you’re lucky, they’ll stick with one or two things for the whole class. If unlucky, it’ll be random nonsense.
Oftentimes, it’s just random permutations ranging from basics to super-complicated with no steady buildup of one technique.



Benjamin Judkins said...

Very interesting read, thanks for posting this!

Rick Matz said...

Ben Judkins is the author of Kung Fu Tea, a must read!

Dirk Bruere said...

"... and have never found one where people consistently work on a narrow range of techniques again and again and again" Because it makes classes boring, especially for beginners and students migrate to some other style which is more "interesting" and less tedious.