The Other Side of the Martial Story

Long  Fist in TorontoFor more than a decade the phrase “kick ass” has been closely associated with martial arts, mixed or nix. And,  truly,  the functional range of skills spanning from self defense to full combat is always a big martial concern. This is the Yang aspect of the arts and, of course, like most things Yang, it is out there in the public eye. Hard to miss. Martial arts special effects in movies are in the same category. But Yang is only half the story.

There is another side of martial practice, a very good and important side, which might be called the “Yin” portion. It is not my imagining. These Yin attributes were designed into the DNA of martial practice regardless of how many people want to cancel them out. They are benefits which all too often remain hidden in the tournaments and belt tests and endless parade of stuntmen performing aerial cartwheels. Here are just a few:

1.   Beauty:
I’m putting this up first just because it’s the one that will challenge the most people. But the truth is that a good deal of people find tremendous beauty in martial movements and postures. And why not? They were created to be beautiful. To the serious student, martial arts means martial arts. It is a real added benefit, not some kind of cultural stupidity that added art andmartial practice together. After all, people see martial movements all the time in movies, dancing, and everywhere else and admire them greatly. The beauty is there, and it is an inspiration hundreds of years old. It’s true that getting used to Asian aesthetics may sometimes take some time. But it is worth it. It saddens me to see the tiers lined with parents who really have no idea of what they are watching, and can’t see a speck of beauty in it.

Quiet Sitting plumpub.com2.   Peacefulness.
Trying to be peaceful, even a little, is not a pleasant hobby in the martial arts; it is an imperative. From the classical perspective, that school of surf nazis in the Karate Kid (the original) were not martial artists at all. They were thugs who knew some martial movements. Is that too abstract? What would you say to a judge with no judgement? Same thing.

3.   Curiosity
What is the history of my style? Where did it come from and who made it? What is the difference between this culture and others? Who was the Buddha? What is the poetry, painting and society of this culture like? The student who is strong may not always “kick ass” but he will be able to pursue his interests, because a lot of martial training is done alone over long periods of time. Martial artists tend to be stubbornly persistent, and their learning also extends inside. Facing their own fears and limitations is not a new task to them.

Kung Fu master and disciples4.   Formality.
When some ad in the phone book says that martial arts will teach your child respect, don’t believe it—at least not at face value. What  martial artists teach is form from which we construct formality. It’s very Confucian. He— one of the world’s great teachers— believed that formal patterns lead to understanding. He was right and we’ve got it exactly backwards. If you don’t feel something at your grandmother’s funeral the correct thing to do is go to more funerals, not stop going altogether. You simply haven’t learned to connect with your feelings; if the ceremony is right, you will come to them. The proper respect between people is learned like a language. It is not the gift of birth but of work.

Chen Taijiquan Push Hands

5. Fun.
You can take Kung Fu seriously, and that’s good. You can also take it too seriously and that’s not so good. Despite the worried look on many teacher’s faces the truth is that Kung Fu can be great fun. When you have such a heart-felt involvement you are often, paradoxically, at your most serious. Sometimes the light-hearted approach garners the greatest results. And, after all, fun is fun.

There are so many more. Most of the time in the media—and it is considerable in an average day if you count fight scenes—is dominated by movie fantasies or people looking to convert everything to a more commodity-oriented, results-guaranteed, kick-ass approach. This, too, will meet some peoples’ needs in certain circumstances. But this particular wine has many vintages, and some are best sipped rather than guzzled.


You might want to see    “Getting it Right

2 Responses to “The Other Side of the Martial Story”

  1. Jeff says:

    When I was a young man, I was drawn to the Yang aspects of martial arts, yet never began any formal training. It wasn’t until I became more interested in the Yin aspects that I began to study in earnest. When people find out that I have some skill in taekwondo, they sometimes say things like, you could probably kick somebody’s ass if you needed to. Maybe, I answer, but that’s not why I’m training.

  2. Bob says:

    Superb observation!

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