February 7, 2006

What Martial Arts Is Not

Martial arts is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented topics in American popular culture (and perhaps, the rest of the world as well). Whenever someone finds out that I practice martial arts, I always wonder into which category I just got placed in their mind...

Granola and Nuts
On the one extreme, we see what a friend of mine refers to as "granola tai chi". You know the kind...crystal wearing, soft-spoken, thin-as-rails, weak, vegetarian tai chi "players". They focus on the healing powers and relaxation, and "becoming one with the cosmos". What they practice may be comforting, but it isn't martial arts. There is no "martial" there at all. Plus I think doing this aspect of the martial arts too much without the fighting does something to one's brain, and it isn't good. It seems to warp people's outlook on life. Most I've met seem to think being a complete pacifist is not only possible but desired. I guess making you go a little nuts goes right along with the granola.

Mixed Martial Arts
On the other extreme, we have the UFC, Pride, K1 MMA ("mixed-martial arts" crowd). Okay, granted...these guys can fight. That right there puts them one up on the granola crowd. However, this still isn't martial arts. It is definitely "martial", but they've dropped the entire "art" side of the equation. That doesn't mean that what they do is useless or ineffective - it is just something other than "martial arts". Personally, I'd just call it "fighting", which is respectable in its own right, but not what we're talking about here.

Only 30 minutes a week! Honest!
In between these two extremes, we have a whole plethora martial arts wannabes pretending that they can defend themselves, achieve enlightenment, or whatever. The fitness category, like Tae Bo and Cardio Karate (or is it "Kardio Karate"...whatever) may be good at getting you in shape, but it won't teach you squat about how to defend yourself. Wait, that's not quite true - it will teach you exactly how not to defend yourself. They use poor concepts and instill a false sense of confidence in their students, which I think is reprehensible. Plus they use poor body mechanics which will lead to chronic injuries if practiced for a long time.

Order! We Must Have Order!
There is also the scientific and systematic crowd - I guess this is how the compulsive obsessives learn to fight. There is a pseudo-scientific sounding principle for every concept and technique that they do, and they all think they were the first to come up with it. Come on! Mankind has been fighting since they learned to walk, and you're the first to understand it? Right....okay...sure. Along with the pseudo-science babble, most of these types of systems have a military theme going. They either work out in combat fatigues, use military terminology and slang, or even train with military equipment and/or weapons. The only one I can think of off the top of my head right now is SCARS, but I've seen plenty along side it, so no need to really single them out. Look, this stuff may or may not actually work, but they weren't the first to come up with it (and unfortunately, they won't be the last to pretend they did). But even if it works, this stuff already exists elsewhere, it has for a long time, is taught by more competent people, for a LOT less money. Classical martial arts has all of this stuff, if you're lucky enough to find a decent teacher (I know, I know...you think you found one. Everybody does. Odds are, you're wrong...but more on that later) and determined enough to last long enough to get to it. If you want to pretend you're some kind of soldier...grow up. The real ones deserve all the credit, not some wannabe. If you want to do it that bad, go join the real military and then we'll be proud of you. Otherwise, you'll probably just be mocked by the real guys (soldiers and martial artists, that is).

And the rest is ...just a bunch of jumping around and bad dubbing
We also have movie martial arts (Jet Li, Jackie Chan type stuff along with The Matrix). This stuff is awesome to watch! But it isn't real, it isn't possible, and it wouldn't work even if it was possible. A close cousin to this is the modern phenomenon of wushu. This is basically Chinese acrobatics designed to look like martial arts. Read that again, especially the part that says that is was designed to look like martial arts. That means that it isn't martial arts at all. It sure looks cool and is very hard to do. The people that can do it are very accomplished athletes and spend a lot of time honing their skill. But what they aren't is martial artists. They've got the "art" nailed down, but nothing martial there. It's all pretend. Just look at the swords made of aluminum foil. Try those moves with a real 3-5 pound sword and you will quickly realize that nobody that skinny could do it. And somebody with enough muscle mass to do it wouldn't be acrobatic and limber enough to do the rest.

What Hasn't it Done for Me Lately?!
What are you supposed to get out of martial arts? What should it do for you? Well, let's start simpler - what won't it do? To the dismay of many prepubescent boys, it will not turn you into super-stealthy ninja. It will not teach you to dodge bullets, or shoots fireballs from your hands, or levitate, or read minds, or whatever. And no, it will not turn you into a Jedi. I love Star Wars and all, but come on...it isn't real. It will not allow you to easily drop a raging lunatic twice your size after only one week of training. Or one month. Maybe not even one year. Contrary to what movies try to tell you, it will not turn a shy, timid female into a world-class fighter that can take on the toughest man after a few weeks of training. It will not turn you into a wise sage that understands all and speaks in cryptic Zen koans. It will also not make you disciplined. That's right, that's a big myth. But it's important to understand, so I'll say it again: it will not make you disciplined. Why does everyone believe this? Because disciplined people succeed at martial arts. Martial arts requires a lot of discipline, but will give you none. Cruel, I know, but true.

So if none of this stuff is real martial arts, what in the world is? I'll get into that soon....right now, I have to run off and do some real work.


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