Martial Arts. That’s a category of sport that I, once upon a time, never gave credit to. When thinking of any sort of martial arts training, regardless of which one we were speaking of my mind’s eye would fly off to a land of “Wax on, Wax off” and Liu Kang’s “wwwaaaoh!” and little children running around shouting “Kiai!” Oh, and don’t forget the older gentleman on a grassy hill (with a blue mountain in the background) doing his katas in super slow-mo.
It’s easy to discredit it if your only (mis)understanding of it is this brand of stereotype.
Martial arts are truly a mind, body, and soul experience. It also helps one to develop team work, if someone is taking it in a classroom setting. I know, I know. It doesn’t sound or look like a team work world, but think about it. When you see classes of student, their goal is to move uniformly, as one. When they are sparring, they have to read one another, and then provide honest feedback. Those higher up in rank assist to teach those in lesser ranks. Class groups will attend competitions together, and support one another in those endeavors. Autonomy is important, but so is being able to function within the “culture” of the dojo.
Mind is encompassed by the focus in the art form, as well as sharpening tactical skills. Body is what we think of martial arts benefiting the most. The truth is, without the mind, the body remains undisciplined and less controlled. It truly takes both. The benefits of the Soul are evidenced by increased confidence, self-esteem, improved mind-body connection, and self-awareness, among other benefits. (Photo: 3 children by S.mini)
To find out more, I decided to speak with a friend of mine. His name is John Pickman, and he has been committed to his martial art- Wing Chun- for at least 4 years now. John has always been committed to some art form throughout his life. He has experimented in realms of Karate and Kuk Sool Won.
And never mind his sheer commitment to the Arts in general over his lifetime. He’s a sketch artist, painter, designer, writer, and philosphical-sort-of-creature extraordinaire! So when I wanted to write about the benefits and insights of martial arts, I decided to speak with him. He’s still very active in his martial arts community, and I really didn’t give him a choice on whether he wanted to comment or not!
Here is what he has to say:
So, why martial arts? How did this interest begin?
I’ve always been fascinated with things you can do to improve yourself that aren’t repetitive or boring. I don’t have a lot of patience for the gym or for practices like running or lifting weights, probably because there is a part of me that realizes that I’d be doing those things for the sole purpose of improving myself physically, and then it doesn’t feel like fun. It feels like work. In the case of something like a martial art, the getting-in-shape is secondary to the learning experience, so it rarely feels like work. Plus, you get all these skills which could come in handy in a crisis situation, and it’s nice to know you’ve got them, even if you never have to use them.
A system of martial arts is just like any other system- it’s trying to do something. Sometimes the something that it’s trying to do isn’t really in line with what you want. Tae Kwon Do is a great sport, but it IS a sport, and is designed for tournaments, rather than practical defense. Mixed Martial Arts is designed for defense as well as tournaments, but the system it’s working with is very narrow. You can learn all you need to know in a few months, and then it’s just a matter of getting harder and stronger.
Traditional Wing Chun, as a system, is trying to do all of the things that I’m interested in. It’s an efficient, fast, effective, and open-ended system that I find to be a lot of fun. I enjoy the idea that there’s always more to learn and refine, and that I’ll never be *done*- with nothing more to learn- no matter how long I practice the art. Plus, it works. I don’t want to be in a fight, but it’s nice to know that I can take care of myself if I ever end up in one.
I absolutely love open-ended systems, in anything. I love working on something that seems to have no boundaries or set-points, that I can keep exploring for as long as my attention holds out. Wing Chun is one of those systems, for me. The more I learn, the more there is to learn, and all of it with a direct use and purpose. There’s an elegance to that which I admire. No wasted motion. No wasted time. It gets addicting after a while, especially if you find yourself working with good people. I would miss it if I didn’t have it.
On a physical level, I feel I’ve gained a greater connection to my body, and a better sense of where it is, what it’s doing, and how it feels. I notice when my balance is off, when I’m flat-footed, when I’m standing with my back to someone. I feel like body and mind are more of a single creature than they used to be, and I enjoy the sense of greater capability, better reaction time, and a more full awareness of what is happening around me.
The whole practice is deeply fulfilling on an archetypal level, and has the feeling that I used to associate with science fiction or fantasy stories- that of knights, monks, the wandering samurai of eastern legends. It has the feeling not of a practice, or a hobby, but of an aspect of the personality. Something that is a part of you, a facet of your character. I can’t imagine being without it, now.
If you haven’t already, sit down and have a serious conversation with yourself about why you are interested in learning this or that, and what you hope to get out of it. Try to imagine yourself doing it every day, for years on end, and decide how you feel about that. Does it appeal to you? Does it sound like work? What martial art has attracted you, and why does it appeal to you? Do you know anything about it before going in, or did you see it in a movie, think it looked neat, and looked up schools in your area that teach it? All of these things are questions you’ll want to have answers to before you walk into a school.
Not all martial arts are created or taught equally, and if something feels *really* off about a school, it’s worth looking into. If you’re not getting the training you expected, try to figure out why, and don’t be afraid to ask your teachers questions. If they refuse to answer or tell you you’re ‘too inexperienced to understand’, it’s probably time to head for the door. Real information and genuine teaching do not need to hide under a cloak of ‘inner secrets’ or ‘when you’re worthy’ or any of the other lines often fed to disciples by unscrupulous teachers. If you can’t walk around and kick the tires, be suspicious.
Finally, if you’re going to do this, make it a part of your life. If you don’t make a space in your life and your personal world for training to happen, it will feel like work, and you won’t want to do it. It shouldn’t feel like work. If it does, something is the matter.
A very special thanks for playing along, John!
How about you? Have you, or someone you’ve known, ever participated in a martial art of any sort? How did you or that person change over time? Did you like the change you saw?