“If I could just interject one thought here…”

For the umpteenth time I am re-designing the basics practiced at my school. This may come as a surprise to people for a couple for reasons. I know that there are styles which have probably taught the same basics for decades, even centuries. I used to study at a school that taught two distinct and separate courses: Hung Gar and Northern Shaolin. But we used the same basics to warm art_interject5 up. Is it any wonder that our Shaolin looked a lot like Hung Gar?

Some people would consider fooling with basics as heresy. Others simply as evolution. And many couldn’t care less and just want to change their exercise every third week. Some wonder, why would anyone mess with them anyway? I hope that, even if you presently have no teacher, this piece might help you to reach the best possible practice routine. I will not talk about strength or endurance training here; those are different topics. The way I want to start this one is to disassemble what we normally lump together as basics. First, some categories:

  1. Warm ups
  2. General movements
  3. Style specifics
  4. Varieties of practice
  5. Hidden Information

art_interject6I will start with my own complaints (I generally wait until the end to drop that bomb, but this time I’m getting it out of the way first.) If there really exists, as people say, a “commercialization” of martial arts,  we have to admit it starts when a world of homogenized schools teach a vocabulary of standardized movements. I will allow that there is nothing wrong with having exercises like leg stretches IF the execution resembles the stretch. Otherwise, you have the martial movement being altered to fit the exercise. This is happening in such arts as Tae Kwon Do and Contemporary Wushu.

The idea is that we all benefit by doing splits (or whatever) in any endeavor we will encounter in adult life. Of course Mom and Dad are impressed when they see little Johnny doing the splits, because they understand the splits. They recognize this from  gymnastics or dance. But those weird choreographic sequences called forms often just make the parental eye glaze over. We mustart_interject2 not for a minute assume that the public has any understanding of martial arts. That would be like them having a theoretical understanding of the taste of turkey never having eaten any. So there can be no external pressure to authenticate itself. That must come from the inside.

Mindless repetition of  punches, as though we are emulating the machines around us, is also not the key, especially if it is built on the idea that the punch is the same in most styles. It is not;  just as a boxing punch shares many features with good martial punching but is not the same thing. Imagine for a moment that you run a language institute that teaches twenty different tongues. Every morning at 7:00 am the entire student body is required to meet in the schoolyard and recite the European alphabet together (even the Asian kids) on the assumption that these “basics” art_interject1would help everyone.  Not only don’t they help but, if you examine carefully, you see that they don’t even match. I can tell you that this is not fanciful. My own style of Kenpo “borrowed” all their basics from Japanese Karate. Even after decades of Procrustean trimming, they were a bad fit.

This is like the mythical creature described by Woody Allen that has the head of a lion and the body of a lion, but not from the same lion.

The problem is that such “universal” basics never were universal. All of them were selected from specific art_interject3traditional sources. In itself, I have no complaint with that. Taking, as Judo did, characteristic movements from styles that have clear hearts and clean methods is perfectly permissible. I use some Pigua basics to introduce my students to Long Fist movements. Many teachers take the movements of the Tan Tui form to introduce styles such as Praying Mantis. It is the creation of generic punches I am against. Teaching generic movement reminds me of another Woody Allen joke about his mother putting their food through the “de-flavorizer.”

So in my little chart upstairs, warm ups and generic punching (General Movement) would, in essence, disappear–at least, as basics. The real basics would start with style-specific movement. In other words, the dialect would be preserved, the sense of community strengthened.

This would allow for an authentic transition to #4: more variation in the basics. The same basic performed by a beginning, an intermediate and an advanced student would–and should–become more and more unique, organic and true to the style AND the devotee. This addresses the first and primary purpose of basics, which is to demonstrate the “shape” of a style. Every branch of martial training art_interject4has a signature shape, no matter how much it resembles the Frankenstein monster after numerous grafts and splices from dubious sources.

No one really thinks that Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do is not wrapped around a core of Wing Chun. Contemporary Wushu is built on the strong and originally isolated style of Cha Chuan. Even styles that refer to “no style” such as WuJi or ZiRan anchor themselves in some practice.

Also understand that Kung Fu was a family activity with shared hours of talk and laughter that, like the style itself, was deeply anchored in the specific and the ordinary–itself, finally, the source of all that is extraordinary.

And what about the “hidden” faces of a style?

Sworn to secrecy, all I can add is that movements, theories, practices and systems which offer keys to what would ordinarily be non-ordinary information, do so by exposing all of us to that which is extraordinary.

Which reminds me, the Yoke Punch from Tan Tui could really help students to see that…

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