The "Higher Learning" Blog is written by internationally recognised martial artist and author, Neil R. Hall. Neil shares his time between his position as Director of the Institute for Advanced Integrated Martial Arts and regular teaching in London the Cotswolds, and Worcestershire, England, with LCTKD.
Two and a half years ago Kim Farrell, the father of a couple of our younger TaeKwonDo sudents, had a stroke. He was left unable to walk, talk, or pretty much anything. Slowly, over months and months with the constant support of his wife Wendy and his boys, as well as all the medical staff, he got back on his feet, and gradually found his voice.
This was no passing impediment. Two years later, he could not walk without a stick, and struggled with vision, coordination, balance, and speech. We talked about his progress now and then. Wendy knew that I taught a martial art for older students, called Ensodo, and thought that he might do well to try it, at some point in his future recovery. One day, he asked me if he could join a class. "The thing is," I said, "we aren't running our Ensodo class near you this term, so I'm not sure if we do have anything for you. Perhaps we could think about it if the class starts up again next term."
On the way home, Mrs H said to me, "Kim seemed quite sad that he couldn't join in."
"Join in?" I answered. "There isn't a class to join in. Our Ensodo class near him isn't running this term."
"Well it wasn't Ensodo he meant. He meant TaeKwonDo. He wants to come to class with his sons."
Okay. So a guy who can barely walk wants to join a class where the students practice flying kicks, breaking boards, and high speed sparring.
"Are you sure?" I said. "Wendy was talking about Ensodo. Kim can't do TaeKwonDo."
"He thinks he can. And he wants to join in with his sons. What's wrong with that? Do you think you could teach him and keep him safe? If you could, then we should let him have a go."
And so we did. Kim joined the classes, and worked at his own pace. The TaeKwonDo Tenets of Perseverance and Indomitable Spirit could not be applied to a more appropriate circumstance. While warming up, the students would run from one end of the room to another. Kim would follow them at his own pace. Nobody seemed at all phased. He worked on the drills with the patient support of his training partners Marie and Bill, and after a while things seemed to click for him.
So he started sparring. Kicking people in the head isn't his speciality, as you'd expect, but apart from finding it hard to see shots coming in from certain angles, he can spar pretty effectively, and his self defence is effective too. Then one day we were doing ground work. "You'd better just watch," I said to Kim. He watched as I started to throw people around on the mats. I could see that wasn't enough. "You want to have a go, don't you?" Yes he did.
So that's how come a guy recovering from a major stroke came to throw a martial arts instructor half way across the room, to a cheer from his colleagues. It was quite a moment.
Just over a week ago, Kim completed the grading for his first belt in TaeKwonDo, and a good grading it was, too. (That's Kim on the right in the photo, with training partner Bill Harbison, after their grading.) A few months ago, nobody thought he could do it but himself. Now, his indomitable spirit has taken him there, and he says himself that he is starting to do things he has not been able to do up to now. Who knows where this will take Kim – and his instructors.
Some of you might have had the misfortune to find yourself admitted to hospital with a serious injury, or potentially life threating condition. In some cases, it doesn't go quite as you'd expect. You arrive, you're in a great deal of pain, and before anything else happens you're expecting a very large dose of a very powerful painkiller. On tv, after all, someone always arrives with a huge syringe and sticks it in to the patient, who then drops off into a blissfull state of unconsciousness. Instead of which, a concerned looking doctor explains that they'll just need to wait for a bit before giving you anything for the pain, because the specialist is on the way, and not only do they want you to stay conscious, they also want you to stay in pain, because if they take the pain away, it's so much harder for the specialist to work out what is wrong with you. Someone lying there blissfully unconsious and pain free can't help much with the diagnosis.
It doesn't seem much like a good idea at the time, but in the clear light of day it's pretty straightforward. Before we take the pain away, we need to understand what is causing it. It's a simple, sensible rule, but one we too often fail to remember.
I see a lot of people with injuries when teaching martial arts. As I've said often before, the vast majority of those injuries come from outside the martial arts studio. Falls in the bathroom top the list, followed by other accidents in the home, then "my brother/sister/dog tripped me up and broke my arm", then injuries at rugby/football. Martial arts injuries are well down the list. All the same, they do happen. Faced with a popular conception of martial artists battering each other, people often expect martial arts injuries to be dramatic. That's rarely the case. The most common injuries to adults, for example, are muscle strains occurring during exercise.
People's reaction to injury fascinates me. Some people try to ignore it, thinking it will go away. It won't, of course. Adrenalin may take the pain away, but the injury is still there. Others go the opposite way, and stop training immediately, not starting again until there is not a single twinge. Either way, it's very common for both sets to behave like the injury was some sort of random act of chance, as if they had been minding their own business and a meteor fell from the sky and just happened to land on poor unfortunate them. I can't tell you how many times I see people with the same injury over and over again, who see themselves as having a very unlucky or bizarrely weak calf/foot/shoulder or whatever. They cover themselves in painkilling spray, carry on or stop, and either way return after a while seemingly recovered, only to get the same injury within minutes of starting.
I have seen many people give up martial arts through frustration at repeated injury. They keep coming back, getting the same injury, having to stop, again, and so on. In the end, they just resign themselves to never being able to do it, and give up, thinking themselves unlucky, or thinking that their bodies are just not made for martial arts.
In truth, luck has most likely had nothing to do with it, and it is not their bodies that are inadequete, but how much they use their brain. If you get an injury, stop and consider how you got it. It didn't just happen. Something caused it. Something you did. To avoid repetition, you need to find out what that is, and not do it again. The most common causes of injury in adults, and especially older adults, are:
working at too high an intensity while insufficiently limbered or warm, so that cold, brittle muscles or ligaments tear
stretching muscles or joints beyond maximum safe limits though a misplaced belief that this will make you more flexible and fitter next time (even though experience has taught you this is not true)
poor alignment of the body, resulting in an uneven "torque" on some parts of the body when in action, particularly when trying to place the body in the same position as your instructor / that superfit kid who's half your age, half your weight, and a professional gymnast
It's worth thinking back, if you are injured, and trying to figure out if one of those things could have caused your injury. If you can't tell, maybe an instructor can tell you. If your injuries are repeated, have you thought of videoing yourself in action then watching it back?
So back to that bit about masking pain. While it's hurting, make a careful note of what is hurting, where it is hurting, and what makes it worse and what makes it better (without going overboard!). Those pain clues could help you work back to figure out what has caused your injury, and so help you prevent it in future.
Martial arts movies are replete with the Master's admonition of the student to "flow like water." The reference itself has its roots in Taoist teaching. Do not try to meet an obstacle head on: instead, flow around it like the water in a stream. You will still find your way, the obstacle will prove of little impediment, and in time your patience will wear the obstacle down. In the end, the obstacle will be undermined, perhaps distintigrate, and be washed away. Balance will be restored, and you will flow as you always did. It is the classic story of soft over hard, of patience over confrontation.
Martial artists also see in it an exhortation to a particular sort of movement. Dispense with the hard, harsh movements of the "external" arts, and use instead the yielding, soft movements of the "internal" arts.
It is something which appeals to me greatly. And yet, as I look at it closely, I feel that there are a couple of points worth remembering.
The first is that if we accept the phrase "flow like water" too wholeheartedly, we lose something of it. It's easy to look at the softness of the water, the fluidity of it. But the very core of the philosophy is about the harmony of movement, not trying to see or do things in too set a way, but "going with the flow." Focus on the flow as much as the water. Life, of course, flows from bad to good, from high to low, from low to high and from good to bad. Being only and always like water means that we try to set ourselves at one end of the spectrum – which in a sense is actually trying to stop the flow. There are times, if we want to be truly balanced, that we must be able to be hard, as well as soft. Sometimes, it is important in life, and especially in martial arts, to be like a needle wrapped in cotton. Not a needle, not cotton, but one with the other. Think about someone you know who is always laid back, never seems to have a care, doesn't get bothered about things. Are they truly balanced, or is their life kind of disorganised or even out of control? Are they easy going or just a pain in the neck to try to do anything with?
The admonition to "flow like water" is supposed to refer to a stream, not slops tumbling from an overlfowing bucket.
Then, secondly, there's the thing about water that people often forget when they're visualising the stream and the obstacle. Water flows. Not just round the obstacle, but onwards. Streams don't go round and round, they move into rivers, and the rivers in to the sea. Now this is not one of those "set your goals and focus on them etc etc....." talks. To be quite honest, I hate all that stuff. It is, though, important that we remember we are on a journey. A journey doesn't stay in one spot, but moves along. A stream doesn't just tumble around. It has a direction. It might allow fate to find its direction for it, but it has a direction nevertheless. It is not static, nor circular. It's on the way somewhere.
In a martial confrontation, endlessly flowing around someone is going to be of little use. Our flowing movement needs to move towards an end to the confrontation. An attacker needs to be subdued and perhaps restrained. And in life generally, would it really be of value to splash around, making no progress? Flowing like water can and should take you onwards.
So flow like water, but don't be afraid to be hard as well as soft, and don't splash around like a puddle, but flow like a stream to the river, and a river to the sea.
When I created the martial art Ensodo in 2010 I was pretty much obsessed with circles. An enso is a Japanese character which is a sort of open ended circle. It represents the circularity of life, and a few other thing besides. At the time, from a background of linear martial arts, I was increasingly drawn by the potential of more circular arts such as Aikido, Tai Chi, and many styles of Kung Fu to provide effective self defence alternatives to the lethal strikes of linear arts like Karate and TaeKwonDo. A study of that potential took me from a fresh perspective to self defence, on to more a general interest in circular arts, and from that on to arts blending the circular with other things, and eventually to Ensodo – a sort of culmination of those things, and more.
My interest in circularity is undiminished. I'm intrigued by it not only in martial arts, but as part of a general philosophy of life. Life moves in circles.
I was involved with the creation of an Institute subsidiary a little while ago, called "Stay Safe at Work." As you might expect, my role was to help apply martial arts principles to practical real-life work scenarios. This is something of a specialism of mine, so I was more than pleased to be part of this. As I worked on it, I found increasingly useful the Tai Chi I had been studying for years, because as natural movement of Tai Chi helps to bring a relaxed, efficient and generally non-lethal approach to everyday self defence that was useful for the sorts of things the Institute wanted looked at by Stay Safe at Work.
I began to study Tai Chi even more deeply, and to spend more time reflecting that study in my teaching of non-Tai Chi students. That led to an unexpected amount of interest in my Tai Chi, which led to some free public sessions, which led to the setting up of some classes. Those led to a surprise request for me to teach Tai Chi by the County Council in Worcestershire, where I now live. That was just a couple of weeks ago. Things moved quickly, and some classes are already in the pipeline.
I was invited over to meet the manager for the County's adult learning service, and we talked about how the progress of students of Tai Chi could be assessed. I talked about assessment in the so-called traditional martial arts, where a structured syllabus, grading examinations and belts have come to dominate over the past century. I explained that this type of assessment was very rare in Tai Chi, and mentioned that it might be worth looking at what the Institute does to assess students for the formal qualifications that go with many of its courses. I gave Stay Safe at Work as an example, because I had some assessment papers at hand.
To my surprise, the manager was very interested in the courses offered by Stay Safe at Work, to the point where we began to talk about running some courses for people looking for jobs in sectors such as catering or retail. I smiled as I left. Stay Safe at Work had inspired my Tai Chi, that had led to more teaching of Tai Chi, that led me to an unexpected meeting, and the meeting unexpectedly led back to Stay Safe at Work. Life moves in circles, and sometimes the circles take us forward!
When people take an interest in martial arts, and perhaps begin to look for a class, they may well be bemused by the different names, and the plethora of styles, teachers, and claims that are made. Since just about every class you can choose is different, getting the right thing for you or your child is not as easy as it might at first appear. A few years ago, I wrote a book for people in just such a situation, called "First Steps in Martial Arts."
Really, what an outsider needs is some sort of explanation of what different arts are, what to look out for in an instructor, and how to make the right choice for yourself. That's what I tried to offer in the book.
Though of course I'd like people to keep on buying the book, I would admit that it's also true you can get that advice by talking to someone who knows enough, and is willing to be objective enough, to help you. I often speak to people who come to me, asking for just such advice, and I am happy to help, whether that means they end up training with one of our Institute for Advance Integrated Martial Arts Fellows around the world, or join one of our classes at LCTKD in England, or go somewhere completely different. The good thing is that they begin their journey well informed – a journey with a map, if you like.
Now just as often as someone comes asking for me advice, I find myself listening to supposedly authoritative statements about martial arts from people whose experience amounts to no more than a conversation with someone who also knows nothing about martial arts ("yeah, in real life it's basically who's biggest who wins the fight, and that's all there is to it"), some proposterous claim they saw in an advert ("lose three kilos in a week with our martial arts"), a fantastical account from a school friend (a 9th Dan can put out a candle with a thought"), or a t.v. show they once watched and can only vaguely remember ("a lone monk, wandering.... oh, forget it). Why they think that their time with me is best spent telling me their views, so quickly aquired, on martial arts, rather than trying to learn from me, is something that perplexes and amuses me in about equal measure.
There is a principle in martial arts, drawn from Zen Bhuddism, which is that it is best to come with "an empty cup" – that is, willing to have your cup of knowledge filled. Surely, for us all, that is a better approach than coming with your cup full of what can at best be described as a monochromatic view of what constitutes "martial arts." I confess to finding these conversations really difficult. How hard it is to talk about something you see in colour when the person you are talking to sees it only in black and white!
To paint a fuller picture of martial arts, it is worth taking a little time to understand the history. I can already see some of my students beginning to cringe: "no, please, not another long lecture about the inter-related histories of different martial arts!" Well, okay. It might be easiest to explain with just a broad brush (continuing with the colouring analogy), and allow the individual to take things up from there. And in doing so, I will move almost seamlessly from one analogy to another.....
"Martial Arts" is often portrayed as something with a single root, perhaps a plant grown from a seed planted by a specific person, on a specific day, and growing from there into a beautiful tree. In fact, "martial arts" is more like a hedgerow: an awful lot of bushes planted in parallel - or more accurately all over the place - which intertwine and cross over each other as they grow, till it becomes difficult to distinguish one plant from another. When people come with a "full cup" they come seeing martial arts as the single tree. They understand a little about one leaf, and think that all the leaves are the same – after all, the leaves are all part of the same plant, from the same seed – and that is why they feel the ability to be so instantly authoritative.
But having a conversation with that person is like having a conversation about as easy as talking about the collection at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, with someone who once saw an oak tree.
To give you just a very small sense of the different plants in the martial arts hedgerow, what we now encompass under the broad label "martial arts" is a whole array of things which have as their parallel roots military combat, sport, theatre, fitness, health, policing, discipline, respect, spirituality, and self defence – and probably many other things that haven't come to mind as I write this. Over the years, martial arts schools have blended different aspects of these things to form their own unique part of the hedge, with instructors following their own tradition, or their personal interests, or what people want to pay for.
So when people's perception is guided by seeing two men in shorts fighting in a cage on the t.v., what they are seeing is a blend of the sport, theatre, and military combat. In truth, just a very small part of all that is martial arts, and most likely a part not at all like their local martial arts school, where the master might be deeply upset at someone thinking this is the sum total of what is taught there - because the school's emphasis might be health, or spirituality, or discipline and respect.
It's actually not that hard to become reasonably informed about what a martial arts school is, if first you empty your cup – putting aside what you think you know, because that is no more than prejudice. Though there are some things in martial arts you will only understand after years of training, if you are a complete novice looking for where to start, you can understand a reasonable amount quite quickly, just by listening carefully, watching, and asking some sensible questions.
Try these ones, for example.
"What do you wear?" illicits a response about the commitment to discipline and respect.
"Do you enter competitions?" will shed some light on the school's view of martial arts and sport.
"How do you teach your students to deal with bullying?" might be a useful question to illuminate whether an instructor is teaching combat pure and simple, or self-defence skills blended with discipline.
"Do you teach martial arts for older students?" will be answered differently by a school which emphasises health, or spirituality, from a school which focuses on the more fitness, sport or combat aspects.
Remember, though, that the best thing to do is to ask for advice....There is usually someone nearby who is both qualified to, and happy to, give it.
I'm often asked about Chi, or Ki, the life force which advanced martial artists are supposed to be able to experience, and in some cases and to some extent, control. Rather than give you a long treatise on the nature of Chi and the different ways in which it is perceived, portrayed, or spoken about, I'll give you a simple western analogy. Apologies to the purists and the traditionalists, and anyone else offended, but it's easiest to make a connection in the mind of most westerners by reference to the Star Wars movies. The Jedi Knights can feel, and use, the Force. Well, that's a straight lift from the concept of Chi, so thinking about it might help you get there a bit more easily than any learned writing.
And the point about getting there without cognitive learning is itself an important one, for which I am most grateful to Master Kenji Tokitsu, whose excellent book, Ki and the Way of the Martial Arts, I have been re-reading. The experience of Chi is not something that can be learnt. It must be achieved. For it to be achieved, we must be prepared to put aside some of our assumptions and cultural determinants.
So let us put aside the belief in alchemy, which is a persistent influence on the thought of westerners today. The modern belief in alchemy pervades so much in the martial arts. When talking about Chi, alchemy shows itself as the idea that there is a secret force which we can learn to use in just ten minutes a day if we read the right book / buy the right dvd / get the right shirt / sign up to the "martial arts secrets" course. That's not the way it is. If you want it quick, you've already lost it. It's a lifetime of commitment. And I mean commitment. I look at a very great number of martial artists in a week. For some, the wholehearted commitment is evident. They arrive early, get on the mat and practice their patterns early, throw themselves into everything, always striving for improvement in every aspect of what they do, and always putting every ounce of energy into it. They are not distracted by other pressures, don't miss class because a friend wanted to go for a drink / the car sounded a bit dodgy / I was a bit tired / the rugby team were a man short so I thought I'd help them out / there was football on the t.v. During class, they do what is asked, and do it precisely. If it's tough, they endure. They don't skip exercises or do the moves half heartedly, even if their full-bloodedness means they are at the point of dropping. At the end of class, they bombard the instructors with demands for more insight, more correction, more help. They wait after class and practice in the quiet. Then they go home, and when they get up in the morning they practice some more.
Then let us put aside the ego that has us more interested in how we look than what we do. We won't experience chi without complete focus. To find that complete focus, we need to do what is asked of us, not what looks good. If asked to do a middle section kick, and you do a high kick, you've lost the focus. If asked to stretch your leg up and in front of you and you rotate your hip to get your foot higher because it looks better, even though that diminishes the benefit of what you do, you've lost the focus. If you are asked to teach someone and you show them something that makes you look good, you've lost the focus. If you race through your patterns because you think remembering a list of steps is what it's all about and you want to show you can do that fast, you've lost the focus. If you are more interested in the next belt than the next class, you have lost the focus.
Only by complete, consistent and persistent commitment, coupled with a training mentality in which ego is put aside, will you find yourself engaging in what Master Kenji Tokitsu describes as training in a spirit of Budo. And only through training in that spirit, year after year, will you begin to experience the flow of chi. The half hearted, the quick fix, the flashy, don't get you there. It's not something you can achieve by knowing the right person or saying the right things, or by substituting purchasing power for effort. There is only one way, and that way is to stop asking about Chi – indeed, forget about it for now - and ensure that the spirit of Budo suffuses your training. In the end, your diligence will be rewarded.
I had great fun today, outside at the beautiful Batsford Arboretum in the English Cotswolds, on a photoshoot, with some very friendly members of the visiting public joining in. I'm doing some free Tai Chi sessions there over the summer with LCTKD.
Working in the sunshine, under the trees, reminded me of a story you often hear in martial arts. "No, the Chinese don't do Tai Chi outside under the trees – birds poop on your head! In China, they do it indoors."
It gets a laugh, but it's not true. China is full of people doing Tai Chi outdoors, and under trees where they can, remarkably unaffected by poop. Of course, in the old days, people learnt outside all the time. They didn't have the space to work inside. No fully equipped, air conditioned studios for the first martial artists.
Years ago, I used to train my TaeKwonDo in St James's Park, beside Buckingham Palace in London, with a guy called Jabir Mir. Jabir and I used to spar amongst the tourists. After a year or two, we moved across to the little park next to the Houses of Parliament. One day, a camera crew arrived, and plonked their camera down right beside us. They weren't filming us, because the camera pointed away. We weren't moving – after all, we got there first! The then Minister for Europe, Keith Vaz, arrived, gave a short interview, and walked off. He was facing us, sparring hard just behind the camera, throughout. That night, I saw the interview on the television news. Nothing on Mr Vaz's face gave any hint that six feet in front of him two very quick guys were knocking lumps off one another. Impressive calm, I thought.
Some years later, I would wake up at six from my little flat in Kensington Gardens Square, drink some green tea, wrap up in about seven layers, pull on a hat, and head out to train in the snow in the gardens, watched by bemused jet-lagged visitors to London, who were overlooking the gardens from nearby hotels while they waited for breakfast time to come around.
I am pleased to say that LCTKD's Jon Alagoa, who teaches in Chinatown, has continued the tradition of training outside, getting over the horrendous cost of training space in Chinatown by giving lessons to senior grades in a local park.
I still train outside regularly, in our beautiful garden, under the trees, and I can't remember even after all these years ever being pooped upon while training. For me, training outdoors is not just about doing something quaint, with a vague connection to the way things used to be. For the advanced martial artist, the art is something beyond the actions; something which connects with the very spirit of the world around us. That connection is all the more meaningful when feeling the sunshine on your face and the wind rustling your clothing. It is also something which allows your body to fill with wonderful, oxygen filled fresh air, and to create vitamin D with the help of the sunlight.
So if you haven't been training outside recently, then make sure to do it soon. And if you are new to Tai Chi, you might like to book on to one of those free taster sessions at Batsford and enjoy some training in truly wonderful surroundings.
I have been much impressed recently by the work of Dr Paul Bowman, Director of Postgraduate Research Studies at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, in Cardiff University. Not only an academic, but also a martial arts teacher himself, Dr Bowman's work comes with both academic rigour and genuine enthusiasm for martial arts.
Dr Bowman's paper, "The Globalization of Martial Arts," looks at the way martial arts have spread around the world, and how media images – many of them more myth than reality – have both driven the spread of martial arts, and helped to shape it. You can download the paper yourself from the publications page of the Institute's website.
In my experience there is never one single dominant myth about martial arts in the west, but rather a number of co-existing, and sometimes contradictory, perceptions that non-martial artists hold. The perceptions, even though they may be quite different from one person to another, can be very strongly held. I commonly find people telling me things about martial arts with real certainty, despite that fact that they are not only untrue but downright bizarre, and the only basis on which they are believed is that "someone told me" or "I've read about it somewhere" or "I saw it in this movie." They persist in expounding their beliefs even though I'm standing right there, and might actually have a modicom of knowledge to contribute to the discussion. Like the Zen masters of old used to say, "oh for a student who comes with an empty cup."
So what are the most common myths around? I've found that they are determined often by generation, as if they are instilled in youth and remain unaffected by what comes afterwards – like the motorist who learned to drive in 1955 and has never referred to the Highway Code since, despite the fact that it has had many, many updates since then.
I could begin with that generation who learned to drive in the 1950s, but it keeps it a bit briefer to begin with my own, the generation that can go back to the 1970s. It's a generation still much influenced by Bruce Lee and by the television series "Kung Fu." They have a vision of wise masters teaching disciplined students, with a philosophical and almost religious setting, emphasising calmness. What they might do, if they have children (or indeed grandchildren) is see a martial arts school as a place where young children learn discipline and focus. They might forget that a one hour class once a week but not during school holidays is hardly the training undergone by monks in the Shaolin Temple, and so might not quite be as capable of turning their little ones into serene, wise individuals as they would like to hope.
The image also emphasises spectacular jumps and kicks, so though they see it as a positive image, they are quick to say "I'm too old," despite the fact that they've never tried it and never actually seen the inside of a martial arts school. And of course they are not too old.
Younger adults, too young to be worried about being too old, and too young to need to worry about what it does for children, tend to be attracted by the fitness aspects. They see the images of lean, muscle-bound men and (even more commonly) women with their hands wrapped, punching into a bag, pouring with sweat. The images are predominantly free of actual combat. You fight the bag, or you kick high into the air. You burn 700 calories an hour and you get rock hard abs. Of course, that's true of martial arts. But the thing is, the truly lean fit people haven't got there by kicking the bags. If all you do is kick a bag, you're bored after a few weeks and stop. To look like the images you aspire to, you need to be learning something that keeps you learning, that gives you more to aim for, that becomes a new lifestyle, not just an hour now and again working out your stress on an inanimate object. The superfit people? They're complete martial artists, not bag thumpers.
Unfortunately, for many people the excellent movie "Fight Club" and current images of "Mixed Martial Arts" as it is portrayed – two guys getting into a cage and battering each other – has a genuinely off-putting effect. Many young adults think that's what martial arts is, and while they are attracted by the body image, they're not so keen on the blood. So they won't come to martial arts classes, but will come to boxercise.
What about teens? Ah... well the very images that put off the young adults, seem to engross many teens. Scared of bullying, impressed by the thought of battering the people who annoy them, these images are quite a draw, especially when combined with the idea that you don't need all that white suits and standing in line calling someone "Sensei" stuff. You just need to learn how to fight, that's all, let's cut to the chase and cut out the rest, and after a class or two you'll be able to sort out anyone who annoys you. Of course, it's a bit of a shock to learn that you don't actually get to be able to batter anyone without years of dedication, and a good deal of disciplined learning.
For both young adults and teens, the myths are strongly held because they are fed by the same desire that had people in days gone by believing in alchemy, and these days buying a spray-on deodorant because they think it will make beautiful strangers suddenly find them hugely attractive. It's easy to sell someone a myth that there's a secret short cut to beauty, attractiveness, fitness, strength, because it's a myth that locks into a desire to achieve all these things without actually having to do any work. Sadly, it's just a myth.
Younger kids have their myth too. They are most often taken by gongs – wear a black belt, win a gold medal. And the sooner the better. The trouble is, gaining a real black belt can take quite a while, and a great deal of dedication, and as for a gold medal, well....
It's a caricature, I know, and of course people do arrive with an open mind and an "empty cup." I explain the myths because they are persistent amongst non-martial artists, especially those who have no connection through friends and family. So the myths are very important indeed in determining what people want when they consider getting in touch with a martial arts school, or even whether they would consider it in the first place. The question, then, is how do martial arts schools respond?
It's a great temptation just to give people what they want. Kids want sport and black belts: we'll have loads of competitions and black belts at age 6. Parents want lines of white suits and an air of discipline and focus for their children: we'll do that. Teens want MMA: yep, we can teach that. Young adults want body image? No problem. We'll sell them some skin tight skimpy things to wear, too. Older adults think they're too old. Well, they aren't going to come anyway.
There are plenty of martial arts schools that just advertise all these different things, targeting different audiences with cleverly selected photos, but in fact only teach straightforward martial arts classes the way they've always done. I would prefer a more honest approach: "look, this is what we do. Did you know that all the things you've wanted you can get by doing what we do? You just didn't realise it. But trust us, you'll get where you want to go if you put enough in, we'll keep you safe, and you'll like it."
Then there are schools who do fragment their teaching to cater for the desires of those who are chasing the myths, but who after all have the money. For some teachers, it's a way of creating different entry points to martial arts proper. Come along, find out that there's more to it, and gradually get more involved.
For others, it's just a way of responding to the market and in doing so paying the bills, and if that means taking the "martial" out of martial arts, or indeed taking the "art" out of martial arts, then what does that really matter? It's at this point that most martial arts begin to bristle. Not because people are making a living selling a marketable product, but because what they are doing is pandering to a myth – or a series of myths. At some point, the paying customer will find out that these are just myths and may quite rightly feel cheated by that. But before they do, they'll continue to expound more strongly the misplaced perceptions about martial arts that brought them along in the first place. That's sad, because the more people who do that, the more sustainable the myths are.
A question I am often asked brings a smile to most experienced martial artists. "So, what's the difference between Tai Chi and Tae KwonDo?" Indeed, one of my senior TaeKwonDo students actually began her martial arts journey by coming along with a friend to a class which their sons had just started attending. Expecting an hour of calming, gentle movement, they were a bit stunned when they found themselves doing hundreds of press ups and flying kicks. Despite the shock, they both liked it so much they stayed on.
In case you didn't know, Tai Chi is the ancient Chinese art which has a martial basis, but which is most commonly practised in the west for the healing qualities of its slow and graceful movements. TaeKwonDo is the modern high speed superfit art first taught to soldiers in the Korean army, filled with lethal strikes and famous for its high kicks. What I find most interesting is that to the experienced eye, despite their apparently huge difference, the similarilities between the two are easy to see. TaeKwonDo moves supposedly "invented" in the 1950s bear a remarkable resemblence to Tai Chi moves that pre-date them by hundreds, and probably thousands, of years.
That's not to say that General Choi, the Founder of TaeKwonDo (according to those who follow his "ITF" style, that is), was guilty of some terrible lie. He was an experienced martial artist, and an army general. He knew all about fighting styles and fighting science, and he and his contemporaries in Korea in the early 1950s were drawing on things that had been passed down and shaped by others over the centuries. Indeed, he and many of his contemporaries had studied Karate in Japan. They weren't inventing something new, they were distilling what they had learned from their martial experience, and refining it with knowledge from other fields – including things like anatomy and body mechanics. They weren't pretending that they had gone to the top of a mountain with no martial arts knowledge, meditated, and come down suddenly aware of a whole fighting system using movements no-one had realised before could be used in that way.
This absorbtion and refining of what has existed before is what happens with "new" martial arts today. The Russian Army did not come up with Systema in isolation, any more than the Israeli Army came up with Krav Maga. If they did, that they came up with so many similar things at the same time – and similar to other arts around the world, too – would be pushing the concept of coincidence just a bit too far. In fact, those arts were developed by practical, intelligent people who drew on their research, knowledge and personal experience in existing martial arts, just like General Choi did in Korea.
Please don't think that I am denigrating any of the arts I have mentioned. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have designed a new art, Ensodo, myself, and am involved at the moment in supporting the development of a new one in Algeria, DZ Fighting Sytem, founded by my colleague and friend Sami Remili. These arts are distillations of research, knowlege, personal experience and preference, just like the others. That they are not stunningly and totally new actually makes them better. Realistically, who would want a martial art which appeared out of nowhere? Or was supposedly recreated entirely from an ancient art of which there aren't actually any records? Far better an art which draws on things tried and tested over centuries. And however they are packaged, that's what most new arts do.
So how exactly is TaeKwonDo related to Tai Chi, and where did they both come from? Well, I'll simplify greatly to keep it brief, but in a nutshell, here it is. TaeKwonDo's greatest martial arts influence is Shotokan Karate, which TaeKwonDo's early exponents, including General Choi, had previously studied in Japan. Karate had spread through Japan early in the twentieth century from the island of Okinawa, after that island's absorbtion into Japan (being influenced, of course, by existing Japanese arts). Karate, in its turn, had grown up out of earlier martial arts in Okinawa, which had themselves drawn heavily on Chinese martial arts during a period when Okinawa and its neighbouring islands had a close relationship with China. Chinese arts were spread to Okinawa (and indeed to Japan) by Bhuddist monks, amongst others. Those monks had studied exercises designed for both wellbeing and fighting which had come east from Tibet (and some say earlier also from India). As they came east, they absorbed new knowledge on the way, and were shaped by the local histories - military, social, and religious. At a point around 1500 years ago in central China, there were martial arts practised in China by such monks, which had drawn on the earlier movement of monks from Tibet and probably further west. These arts from that time period later developed in China into the different styles of Kung Fu and its gentler "internal" cousins including Tai Chi Chuan, precursor of what we more often now call Tai Chi. At the same time as this was happening, the arts were spreading east and influencing the development of martial arts in Okinawa, Japan, and Korea.
Of course, the eastward movement of Bhuddist monks did not just reach out to Okinawa, but also to Japan and Korea. Indeed, the movement may have come through Korea first, and we know that the ancient Korean art, Taekyon, spread south from the north of the peninsula (next to China). This means that there were existing influences from Chinese arts on the development of martial arts knowledge in Korea long before the inheritors of that Korean martial tradition were studying martial arts themselves in Japan. So the influence of ancient Chinese arts on modern TaeKwonDo had at the very least two paths, and in fact probably many more.
When we understand that new arts are not inventions, but designs distilled from previously existing arts, and combine that with an understanding of history and the movement of people, it's easy to understand why a supposedly modern high speed military art from Korea bears so many similarities to a slow, gentle art from China.