Structure and You

martial structure Martial arts comes from a long period in human history when the closest correlate to scientific thinking was pattern identification. This was a time made wondrous with the rules of magic, codes and ciphers, ritual and ceremony. For example, I think this act of pattern recognition is much more significant when talking about the animalistic beginnings of Kung Fu, than the belief in shaping oneself physically to “become” an animal. (Of course the two together probably created the most dynamic transformation).

Patterns are physical and mental manifestations of interlocking elements. In martial arts, we call this structure.

Every martial style has a big structure (the concepts, master techniques, military principles, etc) and a series of smaller ones (the weight bearing of the horse stance, the refinement of a speedy punch, and even the guard stance).

Around the medium level of training, we discover that actions and ideas flow more easily from structure to structure. This might be something like the ability to slip back and forth between grappling and striking while feeling secure because you are working from a tight, well-defined structure. The structure here is an in-between place that lets you rapidly move from option to option.

The thing about structure is that sometimes you can barely identify its influence, even if you are shown how it works. For some people, structure is easy and, through some gift of nature, they even develop their own structures, allowing them to expresses themselves at a higher degree of creativity and sophistication. Properly studied structure lends itself to different, newer structures. Standing in a fighting position you can feel what seem to be huge differences, just because you moved your front hand an inch up or down.   

Structure of this kind generally has identifiable elements. For instance, an inverted forearm block followed by a back knuckle from the best structural position  (close-in fighting, for instance) can blend perfectly with other strikes, evasive tactics, changes of pace and distance. Someone who is deeply trained or inherently gifted with this recognition moves at a different speed and in a different space. Here the structure allows the fighter to shift back and forth, up and down, in a space where he feels completely comfortable.

Is structure the same as style? It can be. It can also lie in a group of externally approved moves, such as the rules for a kickboxing match. Having a structure rooted in principles, plus the experience and personality of the fighter, might give you a Joe Lewis or a Bruce Lee. Often this search for structure brings forth a new style or system of martial arts. And, even more wonderfully, these new ideas often arrive on the scene long before the individual’s own unique structure has arrived. You might say that most styles in martial arts are either simply the result of one particular performer’s journey or, sometimes, even a failure of some kind that demands adjusting.

The search for structure can often continue throughout the lifetime of a practitioner, far into his or her “masterhood.” One day, movements are the ingredients, the next you have soup. It takes a lot of heat to make the transition, but it’s worth it. Structure works faster and better than thinking, that’s for sure. It imparts that easy, almost casual, flow of movement as it occurs.

What are your favorite movements? How do they resonate to each other?

One Response to “Structure and You”

  1. Jeff says:

    I find it interesting that you chose, as your example, the inverted forearm block/back fist. This is one of the most recognizable movements of the Naihanchi kata, appearing throughout all three (Shodan, Nidan, Sandan). Naihanchi was considered by Kentsu Yabu to be the beginning and end of karate. Motubu Choki said it contained everything you need to know to effectively defend yourself.

    Like much of karate, Naihanchi’s origins are lost and/or deliberately obscured, but I suspect that it comes from the same school of thought as Wing Chun.

    And it is true what you say about structure. Thinking gets in the way of movement. How many times have you hit a shot or caught something and said, “If I had thought about that I never could have done it?” Say I know someone is about to hit me – the longer I have to prepare for it, the less like I am to intercept it, as my conscious mind tries to predict and invariably fails. But say someone takes a swing at me unexpectedly – I have usually been able to avoid or intercept it, partially due to lizard brain reaction, but also due to structure built through repetition. Structure doesn’t replace thought. It frees the mind to observe.

    I think this is what Motubu meant – Naihanchi provides a sort of universal guard/react structure, exemplified by the inner forearm block/back fist combination you pointed out. That’s why it is my favorite movement.

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