INB #03: The Use of Analogy

art_bodymind2“A relation of likeness between two things or of one thing to or with another, consisting in the resemblance not of the thing themselves but of two or more attributes, circumstances of effects. ” Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 5th Edition

A teacher in the martial arts soon learns that knowledge is a dangerous thing – to you. If I compare the written and visual information available nowadays and the amount of even one generation ago, I am astonished. There’s no doubt that this is the most “informed” time in martial history – at least in sheer numbers. But it’s not the first. The Tang and Ming dynasties, for instance, were replete with not only factual but fictional images in the form of opera, stories and plays. And these periods left so many half-truths around that we are still tripping over the debris.

So, the point is: expect interesting if not infuriating questions from potential and new students. They will run the scale of complexity but not necessarily experience. You may get “What’s the difference between Kung Fu and Judo?” or, “Which of the three main branches of Muslim Fist is best suited to someone with anorexia?” Responding to these questions like you’re a college professor can waste time, confuse the issue and also promote the subtle suggestion that you are an information vending machine.

One of the best ways to control the situation is the use of simple analogies. If insufficient, you can always add to them. For instance, take Judo and Karate. On the simplest level, Judo is wrestling. Karate is boxing. Kung Fu is both. Never use these comparisons to imply superiority of one style over another. They’re just starting points. Don’t fall into the trap of believing your own spiel so much that it becomes the “truth”: Kung Fu is more circular than Karate, but let’s be honest – good Karate has plenty of sufficient circles in it.

Here are some that work for me. Of course they show my interpretation, which you may or may not agree with. But you get the idea. When asked about exotic styles (maybe the student has read about them in IKF or heard about them from a friend) I tell them that some styles such as Shaolin or Yang T’ai Chi are when I call “water” styles. One person likes coffee, one tea, another hot chocolate. But you make all of them from water, and it’s pretty hard to unmake them. So, from some styles, like Shaolin, you can go anywhere, study anything. If, however, you begin with Nine Heavenly Phoenix Palm in a moment of infatuation, easy switching may not be an option.

When asked about studying multiple styles simultaneously, I generally compare that to having a double major in college. If you’ve got nothing to do but study, it’s fine. Otherwise, expect mediocrity.

Relating to the idea of progress, I sometimes use the shocking comparison that Kung Fu’s initial concern is not with learning a lot of new things. Rather it focuses on unlearning. You want to build a skyscraper? Then you have to dig a deeper basement. So clearing the site is important.

The martial arts in general – and by that I mean traditional – I compare to a chess board. Different instructors, especially commercial ones, have taken specific squares such as self-defense, and blown them up to chessboard size. Often depending on their own specialties. These are indeed examples of martial arts. But the original chessboard is composed of other squares such as meditation, massage, postural training, etc. For me this validates the various approaches but suggests that nothing is one-dimensional. Martial arts is not a single thing like “fighting” or “sport”.

(On this last one: the slightly negative aspect is not a criticism of martial teachers; it’s a subtle message to the student not to assume that simple explanations are the whole truth. If a student is looking for self-defense and finds an instructor whose main focus is self-defense, then you have a perfect match. The only problem is this: when the instructor decides – for everyone else – that martial arts is only self-defense.)

Avoid phony analogies. People aren’t stupid, just misinformed. Don’t suggest that Shotokan players look like robots, or that Jujitsu fighters can’t punch. Of course, given your martial experiences, you should have your own analogies. Try to make them appropriate. A student’s questions are like pebbles thrown at a gong: small rock, small sound; big rock, big sound. Just don’t lie.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts, probably more than any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. And, indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincerehandling of informed viewpoints.

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