Saturday, 18 September 2010

My occassional martial arts journeys.

This week featured something that I occasionally do when I get sufficiently bored, in the form of a quick wander over to one of the many, many martial arts classes that infest East Yorkshire. It may be that one or more of you is considering taking up some form of martial art (well, you might), and so my thoughts here might be of some use. In any case, I'm inclined to get some of this off my chest before I really lose my temper. So, some things that wind me up when I go to a martial arts class:

  1. The place claims links to a dozen systems, yet actually teaches one fairly traditional martial art with maybe two moves changed. I have been in what turned out to be karate classes with five minutes of bad weapons work at the end before, and which have therefore claimed to be multi style. This week's attempt featured something that was supposedly influenced by both a traditional kung fu style and JKD. I went because I had practised the traditional style and hoped that the influence of the philosophies of the second art might break down a few of the bigger problems with it. Let's be clear: this was just a Feng Shou class in every detail.
  2. The class is concerned primarily with historical or cultural re-creation, but does not say so. It is entirely legitimate to practise a dead art in exactly the way it would have been done years ago, provided that you are clear about what you are doing. You are doing essentially the same thing that people who dress up as vikings and belt each other with swords are doing. The difference is that they don't claim to be teaching something to keep their students safe in a real fight. Claiming to be teaching effective self defence while doing no more than sticking to the traditional syllabus is dangerous and self-deluding.
  3. Connected to this is the issue of dressing up. I can see the usefulness in some situations of the Japanese style gi, mostly after having destroyed quite a few t-shirts whilst grappling. However, there seems to be little reason to wear the 'traditional dress' of a country while training. For the most part, these traditional costumes turn out to be just what people of a particular time and place would happen to have worn for exercise or outdoor work. They are, in short, the equivalent of sweatpants.
  4. Forms. Endless, endless forms. To use them for fighting, you then have to learn the applications of the movements. So couldn't they just teach you the application of the movement in the first place? I'm probably a bit bitter about this one at the moment, since Feng Shou features an unusually large number of the things. Forms for strikes, forms for kicks, forms for evasions of all things. Contrast that to my stint in aikido (which is a bit fiddly and formal, but at least seems to be trying) where evasion practise consisted of actually moving out of the way of things.
  5. There really should be some meaningful interactive practices. I'm not necessarily asking for full on, heavy contact sparring at all times, because I know not everyone would want to be on the receiving end of it, but can we at least try for something that teaches us about paying attention to the other person, about distance and timing and so forth? And no, something where the merest flick of the fingers counts as a hit doesn't count.
  6. People do not attack the way you have taught them to. It should be obvious that, as useful as Feng Shou's lunging palm strike to the jaw can be no one else attacks like that. Training to defend against it teaches you to stop an attack no one uses. You would be amazed at how many supposed experts on fighting don't know that the most common attack in the UK (and these things do vary by place) consists of a grab with one hand and then repeated hooking punches with the dominant hand. It also happens to be a common approach for amateur knife users. So shouldn't you be training to stop it?
  7. Talking of which, I get really angry with the way some people approach weapons work. Get this wrong, and you don't just get your students bruised. Yet we still see stilted and unrealistic attacks, fiddly defences, and an approach that will get people hurt. I have had to take blades off people (thankfully idiots who didn't know what they were doing) twice, so I take this stuff seriously. I'd just like others to, occasionally. The HEMAS (that's historical european martial arts societies) lads locally don't claim to be teaching super efficient modern techniques, so it's depressing that they still teach more effective stuff than a lot of the people who do.
Right, I think I've vented now. Sorry about that. Let's just say I won't be going back next week.


Will Burke said...

Thanks for the insights! When my kis(s) are old enough, I want them in martial arts, and hepl choosing is much appreciated.

aspiring_x said...

ok, i don't know anything about martial arts (unless you count enjoying jackie chan movies:) ) but it does seem pointless to learn them, and still not be able to defend yourself...
here's my question: do you think that it is important for people to know how to defend themselves. i think women living in cities ought to know some... but do men really ever get attacked? (isn't the best tactic when being mugged to just fork over the wallet?)

Genie of the Shell said...

Wow. I took a form of martial arts as a teen, almost to black belt level, called Iki Shin Do. It was a new, Asian/American fusion sort of thing led by a sensei with a mullet. The style was derived from traditional Korean martial arts techniques combined with American military special ops training. At first I thought it was hokey but fun, but now as an adult, I see how incredibly badass it was. As compared to your recent unfortunate experience:

1. The senseis were totally clear about the influences and purposes of learning this fighting style.

2. It was meant to be both an art AND a true, practical self defense practice, and it delivered on both counts. We learned decision making skills (like, when to run away and how to avoid a fight situation) as well as truly effective evasion and combat maneuvers. I have used these skills later in life, in play and in real emergency situations, and boy did they work.

3. We were required to wear gi in most training circumstances, but I understood why. The heavyweight fabric held up better than regular workout clothes at our rowdy and sometimes brutal sessions. And the senseis pointed out that the heavy fabric made a neat snappy sound that made punches and kicks seem more awesome. Hyuck hyuck.

Genie of the Shell said...

4. We learned many forms, most of which we called kata. They were presented as drills and also as a means of artistic expression, much like performance art, that did things like build stamina, balance, grace, etc. They were categorized separately from "self defense." However, we always learned the practical application of each move within each kata and practiced it separately. Also, the stances were greatly exaggerated compared to a style such as tae kwon do. They told us this was intended to build our muscle strength and flexibility, NOT because we would ever stand like that in a real fight.

5. We were taught tournament-style sparring (in which light touches count for points and you're always standing up) explicitly separate from self defense. We knew that real fights are usually quick and dirty, they end up on the floor, and there is more clothes grabbing going on than roundhouse kicks. We were also taught that if we wanted to learn real self defense, we did need to do heavy contact sparring and learn to take the pain as well as learn how to strike. (We wore gear such as helmets, mouthguards, and gloves to prevent serious injury, but there was still head trauma, blood, broken bones, and vomiting. Like I said. Badass.)

6. One of my favorite activities, which we did often, was to pair up for self defense. The person on offensive would do a surprise strike or grab of any kind, and the person on defense would have to respond to whatever happened, in the moment. We built some mad reflexes that way. One of my favorite games with my parents' friends was, "Try to grab me, anywhere." (I was just a scrawny kid.) No matter what they did, they ended up on the floor before they knew what hit them. Soon, nobody wanted to play that game with me. ;) The fun ended when the senseis taught me a throw that caused the attacker to be flipped so fast his head would be the first thing to hit the floor. I got so good at it, they banned me from doing the move so nobody would get killed.

7. They took weapons work very seriously, took great precautions, and only allowed advanced students to practice weapons fighting. They also made clear that this was not one of the more practical skill sets, since most of us don't walk around carrying big steel knives or bamboo sticks. To us regular students, they taught things like "how to kill an attacker with a set of car keys and not leave fingerprints." Fer realz.

So, this martial arts practice turned out to be highly valuable to me as a person, and looking back, I think it was an incredible experience. On the downside (I guess), I had one very naughty young sensei. If you're interested, I wrote about the experience in a short story called Dear Hideo.

Genie of the Shell said...
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Genie of the Shell said...
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stu said...

Aspiring X, unless the statistics have changed significantly since I looked them up a while back, women tend to be subject on average to much more serious assaults than men, but men are approximately twice as likely to be attacked in the first place.

A common scenario is the one faced by a friend of mine, where some drunken idiot in a nightclub decided that he'd reached the stage of the evening where he wanted a fight, and achieved his aim by walking over and headbutting my friend.

You are largely correct on the mugging front, though it's important to remember both that muggings aren't the be all and end all of potentially dangerous situations, and that a small minority of muggers will still attempt to hurt a victim after they have what they want.

Donna Hole said...

That's a lot to get off your chest :)

I've never participated in any martial arts myself. My oldest two kids did Karate - like most children - but it seemed so fake. Just something for the kids to do to eat up after school time. I saw kids with brown and black belts that could hardly stand on one foot for more that two seconds.

I'd expect better of adult classes though.

This was interesting insights into the martial arts world. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

And, I have an award for you over at my blog.


J.C. Martin said...

Interesting points. I teach traditional Wing Chun kung fu of the Yip Man system, and I agree with all your points--we don't do them at our school (and no weapons are taught till you're well past your 1st degree black belt, so no risk of getting hurt then till then!).

My only (mild) disagreement is with no. 4: having done three years of karate, I do find it hard to picture any useful applications to the tonnes of kata forms. However, in WC we only have 3 empty-handed forms: Siu Nim Tau (for beginners), Chum Kiu (for beginners) and Biu Tze (for advanced). Just three to learn before progressing on to the Wooden Dummy and weapons. And we constantly show the applications for the movement. I find the forms helps with hand shapes and stance, and additionally we have chi sao (sticky hand) drills--forms requiring a partner to practice sensitivity and reflexes. Almost all our moves are derived from these forms, so they are pretty important to learn.

You sound like someone who is keen to find a martial art they can really enjoy. I wish you luck in finding one! :)

stu said...

I can see why you would disagree, and I must admit to doing the odd tai chi, bagua or hsing i form when I get bored (is it just me or is the emphasis on the correct external form in internal martial arts missing the point a bit?).

On the karate front, I'm told by my nearest karate teacher that there are many and varied applications for their movements. I just dislike the way they choose to train them.