Major and Minor Styles

Most martial artists have what they consider their favorite or “major” martial style. This is often just the first style that commenced their training. Occasionally, it is a style—not necessarily the first—that sprang right up in their faces and said, “This is yours!” Sometimes it is dictated simply by body type, or event, or natural skill.

But even if you feel secure with your major style, there will no doubt be others. We might think of them as “minor” but should never think they are inconsequential. When we scrutinize the totality of our practice history, these minors somehow assist in our quest for skill, attitude or understanding.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 2.54.31 PMThe mental trick is keeping the total picture in mind. The reasons for acquiring minor styles may vary. Often it is something about the major style that is lacking. Perhaps not enough grappling. Perhaps no weapons forms. Sometimes the dissatisfaction comes from the head instructor, not the student. A teacher might even decide that the major style is insufficient. Ironically, when this occurs, the new marriage between style A and B soon seems like it has been there forever and needs to be supplemented with a THIRD style, or fourth, etc. Then the new complete martial style becomes a partial style in no time.

The goal that haunts all these efforts is the idea that a style must be “complete.” But finding real completeness in a world where everything is a commodity battling for shelf space makes all these claims of completeness more like sellers hawking their wares than a serious discussion centered around a quixotic quest.

A while ago I had a student enter our Kung Fu group who had been “exposed” to a lot of martial training. With one of the instructors guiding her through her basics it took about twenty minutes before she said, “I had forgotten how tedious this is.” Mercifully we let her go, the better for all of us. In her case, completeness also meant fun, certainly not a forbidden view but not a necessary component for martial excellence.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 2.56.26 PMIn truth, practice is actually not tedious; student’s minds are tedious. They mistakenly think that completeness comes from the styles, not the people. In reality, if you are smart you can adjust, create completeness out of your own creativity.  When Riordan Gracie was asked if his style of JuJitsu was a perfect martial art he replied—with a good deal of class, I thought—that he was not claiming perfection, but he was claiming that his father had given him the tools to deal with any situation. Whether you agree with his assessment or not is unimportant; the key thing is that he put the onus right where it belonged, on him and not the style.

Major and minor styles can work together to energize every aspect of martial training. For centuries it has been said that only through sticking to one style can we make progress. But even glancing at the biographies of top notch martial artists shows a wealth of exploration and adaptation. What is the resolution of this knotty question? Simple: the important thing is not to do it like an amateur. It is NOT a good idea to shift five times in your first three months, or simultaneously train three styles. In the past I would not accept students who were working with another instructor; these days, though, it is a foregone conclusion that the student is “shopping.” The old saying stands, “Get a black belt, then do what you want.” Or at least get some skill in a particular art before taking on another study. People talk a lot about having to “start over” when changing a teacher but mostly that isn’t true. You may find that new Tai Chi master teaching you the same form that the last one did but probably not in the same way. Heads up, pay attention.

uploadhung_fig1Don’t blame the teachers if you, and not the salad of styles, is the problem.  I remember a student—not particularly talented—who had studied Karate for six months. About ten years after this he started with me, learning Tai Chi. His movements were rigid, tense and unnatural. So I waited. When we got to Push Hands, the confrontation with another person was almost impossible for him without his tightening up so hard I could hear the squeaking. So I waited. After six years with me, he left pretty much as he came. He had been essentially unable to graft anything new on the branch. His major style, it appeared, was also a major hurdle.

People get confused. They see the rather limited range of commercial choices and crave something more. In reality there are so many more styles, with such diverse storehouses of information, that one style may be recommended for an older person, another for a upload_crane_fig1taller student, another for a woman, for any number of specifics. This means that—surprise!—there really are no forbidden rules about styles tainting one another. Some can actually be used as foundation. If you want to study Seven Star Mantis, the instructor will assign the Muslim set Tan Tui to “open you up” and set your basics. BajiQuan, for example, is supplemented by PiGua and vice versa, so much so that some of the forms are blatant hybrids of the two styles. I have my advanced Tai Chi people, despite some grumbling, practice roads from Tan Tui or moves from White Crane, just to show them what Kung Fu structure is all about.

The first thing to remember: some styles can be “study projects” for you without disrespecting the style. Don’t steal their steel whip set, just raid them for the basics you really need.

The second thing to recall is that you need not struggle to become a master of each style you study. Master yourself, the styles will take care of themselves.

2 Responses to “Major and Minor Styles”

  1. Y. Pruitt says:

    Excellent writing on the fine understanding of CMA that I am looking for, and wish that everyone understood about this sort of pursuit. It’s just like the Gospel, in that it has to speak to your heart before it can really mean anything to you. Of course, the person of God that is Jesus the Christ is of greatest importance to our souls, but the vehicles that take you to the understanding (the study and practice of the Bible, the study and practice of martial arts) strike me as having many similarities. Discipline, temperance and confidence in correct instruction being among them.

  2. Ray says:

    I like this one.
    It’s not “this style is better than that;” it’s “who’s the better martial artist/person.”

    Styles provide some “tools” or “tips and tricks,” but it’s your development in training that determines what you are or will be.

    I also agree with the merging of styles part. Right now I use Xingyi (just the 5 elements though) and some Baguazhang for basic health and they gave great body mechanics and a solid stance. Those really helped with my “secondary” art, Pekiti Tirsia Kali which I study because it’s the only one where I have an actual teacher with a great lineage, and I liked it for the speedy weapons and empty-hand fighting and great footwork training.

    In any case, styles give great “tips and strategies,” but I also really believe in adapting and adjusting as necessary (“Use whatever works!”).

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