Booby Prize Martial Arts

One of the real mistaken ideas which people get caught up in— especially if they started training young— is that some martial practices are the booby prize. We have another phrase for this, too: Tai Chi Pasture. We say: “Now that you are too old to be a runner, we’ll have to put you out to Tai Chi Pasture.”

And of course, in some ways, it is true that there will be things about growing older which will limit your martial practice. But more importantly there are a couple things about growing older and not letting go of certain standards that you might have had when a younger martial artist which, if you don’t alter them, can be very destructive of your practice.

Let me give you a specific example that gets to the point. People in martial arts very commonly reach a stage where they can no longer perform a deep Pu Tui stance, that big squatting stance with your feet wide apart. This happens to just people of any age. Sure, if everyone worked out four hours a day they might maintain the Pu Tui their whole lives but even the best of us gets injuries, or feels the weakening of the joints, etc. The thing is this: when you are 12 years old you can drop effortlessly into a Pu Tui with your rear end just about bumping on the ground. And when you are 60 and attempt a Pu Tui it is definitely harder. However, if you are really focused on martial arts and not performance you will realize that people who are advanced yet less limber can often do a meaningful Pu Tui much better than the younger people. It’s the truth versus reality; they are not the same. As I tell my students, the idea of a Pu Tui is to sink your weight without pushing it down or forcing it. Think about this; if you are watching a 13 year old girl dropping—BOOM—into a Pu Tui she doesn’t look heavy at all. She’s doing a nice move but she is not doing what the Pu Tui is about. The Pu Tui has to do with an internal weight shift, not lowering your body. So someone who is advanced but 70 years old and drops his weight two inches BUT ALSO moves his center of gravity into the ground is doing a better version of a Pu Tui than a young, limber student.

It is not so much that you want to recapture your youth and replicate everything you did earlier. Instead it is that you want to go on and set a new standard for the very essence of the thing—whatever that might be. As I say: the truth, not the fact. The older you get the more you try to do the essence of correct martial arts. . .

However, as you age there are some good rules to stand by. One is that you always, always want your knees to track your toes. Keep everything in fierce alignment. You must diligently keep within that rule where, previously, you got a little sloppy. So the older you get the more correct you should strive to become.

Next rule is NO FORCE. It was okay to force a little when you were younger. If you are doing a Pu Tui, for example, if you try to look as you did when you were ten years younger, and to do it you have to lean far forward while awkwardly scrunching down, then you are just wrong. We have a saying that a small Picasso is still a Picasso. Don’t paint a big ugly fake just by trying to force into a half-remembered range of motion. If your Pu Tui is really accurate in weight shift and dropping, even if you are not very low, it is still a really good Pu Tui.

Another thing people do consistently when they are fighting the Booby Prize mentality is to hold onto unimportant skills. First, strip all your forms of the jump kicks, and the ground work like broom kicks. Just throw them out. They were training devices, not goals anyway. To be able to do a form without jump kicks—and this is one of the hardest things I try to convince people of—is to me to eliminate the distractions . If you are an advanced martial artist and you can do the same form flowing, without these inconsequential tournament moves, you are ahead of the game. They never were the core moves of ANY Kung Fu system and if you think that the essence of a style ever lies in its aerial or fancy moves then I can show you a host of great practitioners who would set you straight. Yes, I know. It was so cool to do those moves. Great. Now it’s going to be cool doing moves correctly. The point is that to really interrupt your form because you are gathering the energy to perform that Tornado kick you can still pull off—though not terribly well—is silly. It’s a waste of time.

The modifications that your body is making should be understood. Everyone says “I had to modify the form to my age, my body is different than how I look at it.” I would say, “My body is modifying the form.” which is what it is supposed to be doing. After all, when you were younger, if you were exceptionally strong and did the form more powerfully than anyone in your studio, you would not have said, “I modified the form to my body.” You would say, “Look how good I am.” When you get older it is the same thing. Look how fluid I am, or how beautifully I handle the transitions or anything else where your work and skill are visible.

The main irritation people have when they think they are getting old is that they don’t do the poses the same as they used to. But as you get older the poses should disappear anyway. And what should remain is your expression of your individuality in the form. You can’t get too old for that.

It’s not a booby prize. It’s first prize.

4 Responses to “Booby Prize Martial Arts”

  1. patrick hodges says:

    Hooo Boy! Excellent advice for us older people. I had a poster once with a picture of a muscular “senior citizen” saying, “Growing Old is not for sissies.” Excellent post, I need to read it over and over.

  2. Stan Meador says:

    Great article! I’m just past 40 and started training Choy Lay Fut with my daughter. It is a different animal from the Japanese styles I’ve trained. I’m enjoying it, but I’m definitely learning it according to my body. It is good to have an instructor who understands that reality too.

  3. Sifu Mancuso, Thank you for so eloquently putting into words the dilemma some of us face. I am turning 40 this year and my knees sometime give me trouble. I am throwing out some Longfist forms , but keeping the tiger stance. after reading your article, I feel better!

  4. Herb Rich says:

    Well put! Great advice for those who may be on the verge of discouragement.

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