Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, 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 ~


Friday, September 27, 2019

Budo and Natural Movement

Over at The Budo Bum, there was an interesting post that posited the idea that martial arts practice doesn't promote natural movement, but helps us to overcome our natural tendencies to achieve a mode that is better than our natural movement.

I think that a counter argument could be made that we are conditioned since birth to move in an unnatural way and that our martial arts practice helps us to peel away the layers of baggage so that we can return to a state of naturalness.

Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

I’ve heard proponents of various martial arts talk about how “natural” their art is. They proclaim that whatever they are doing is based on natural movements. Some are said to be based on the movements of animals. Others claim to be based on the natural movement of the human body.

I was working with one of my students this morning on some kata from Shinto Hatakage Ryu. His movement is getting good and solid. It struck me that his strong, smooth movement was efficient, effective and elegant, but not at all natural. When I began to think about it, I realized I could not think of any martial art where the movements are natural to human beings. By “natural” I mean that the movements are ones that people make without having to be trained for endless hours.


Along with Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho I teach Shinto Muso Ryu Jo and Kodokan Judo. Among the movements and principles taught in those three arts, I cannot think of a movement or technique that I would call natural.  In truth, the hallmark of good, effective budo seems to be how unnatural it is. Developing proficiency in any budo movement requires years of practice with a good teacher. It never just happens. Even with students who have a natural affinity for an art, it takes years, perhaps half as many as a natural klutz like me, but years.


I’ve written before that all I teach is how to walk and how to breath. I was exaggerating a little there, and Ellis Amdur was generous enough to call me out on that point and several others. However, walking and breathing are examples of unnatural budo movement.  There isn’t much that is more natural than walking, and breathing might be the most natural thing we do. Nonetheless, as budoka, we spend years learning to breathe properly from our guts and to stay balanced and stable when we walk.

Why does it take so much effort to learn to do something that we were born doing? Breathing is the first thing we do for ourselves when we are born. We take a breath and let the world know how unhappy we are to have been kicked out of the wonderful home where we’ve spent the last nine months. Once we do that, we never stop breathing. What else about breathing could there possibly be to learn. 

A great deal when you dig into it. Our natural instincts aren’t very good when it comes to breathing.  Even before we get to all the inefficient ways people have of breathing, for all that it is a natural, automatic act, put people under just a little bit of stress and they will actually forget to breathe! I spend too much of my teaching time reminding students to breathe for the first couple of years they are training.


When they do remember to breathe, they usually are doing it poorly; breathing with their shoulders or taking shallow breaths or finding some other way to do the most natural act in the world wrongly. Proper breathing must be taught and practiced until it is an unconscious act. When sparring, you don’t have sufficient mental capacity to think about breathing correctly. If your breathing skills aren’t honed so that proper breathing happens even when you’re not thinking about it, you won’t breathe well under stress.


Walking feels nearly as natural as breathing. No one had to teach you how to walk. You figured it out for yourself, and you’ve been doing it for longer than you can remember. What could there be to learn about walking? From the condition of the students who come to the dojo, or just doing some casual people watching, we can see that most people haven’t learned very much about how to walk properly.  They roll their hips. They slouch their shoulders. They slap their feet on the ground. They lean forward past the point of balance. They stand on their heels. New students spend hours hearing me correct their way of walking. 

Because of all the bad habits people pick up over the course of their lives, learning to walk in a solid, stable, balanced manner takes a long time to learn to do consciously. Learning to do it unconsciously when under stress takes even longer. Good walking isn’t natural at all.


When you consider the discrete movements and actions that make up any budo art, things become even more unnatural. Just about the first thing we teach in judo, and the technique that prevents more people from getting hurt outside the dojo than any other, is how to fall safely. Two year-olds fall pretty well. They are relaxed and comfortable with falling down, perhaps because they do so much of it. By the time we start school though, falling is met with stiffness and fear. There is no technique in judo that we practice as much as falling. Falling well requires coordination of the entire body and I’ve never met anyone besides trained gymnasts who took to it without hours of accumulated practice. It’s an entirely unnatural act: we don’t like to fall.


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