Sunday, November 30, 2008

Divide and Conquer - A Beginner's Guide

I recently discovered a new type of martial art. I had never heard of it until recently and it is beyond a doubt one of the most practical martial arts I've ever studied. After discovering this art and practicing it for some weeks, I came home and realized I had four or five books on the martial arts waiting to be read (and re-read). Finding myself slightly overwhelmed by all this, I began to ponder the vast labyrinth that is the martial arts.

Labyrinth means, according to, "an intricate combination of paths or passages in which it is difficult to find one's way or to reach the exit." (Please don't pass judgment on me for having be the first quote of this blog!) I find that a labyrinth is a relatively appropriate analogy for the martial arts. Nowadays, for someone looking to get into the martial arts, all they need do is open up the phone book and they'll find listing after listing of martial arts school after martial arts school - karate, tae kwon do, judo, jujitsu, hapkido, aikido, tang soo do, kendo, kung fu, tai chi, isshin ryu, shorin ryu, chito ryu, capoeira, kali, hwa rang do, arnis, shotokan...should I keep going? When confronted with such boundless opportunities like that, it begs the question: "Which one?"

As a martial artist in my relative youth, I've had the opportunity to study in depth two very distinct styles, with a smattering of experience with other arts through the years. And still, to this day, when thinking about which martial art I will choose to throw myself into next, I can't help but ask, "Which one?" It's a difficult decision, with each art having pros and cons, and much of the decision being based upon location - if you live in an area with only one martial arts studio, your options are rather limited.

But let's say, for example, you have a relatively fair range of choices. If you're not quite sure which one you want, go and check out the school first. Watch a class, talk with an instructor or two, and even talk with a student. Discover their perspective on the school and the instruction they receive. You may be surprised at their answer! After you've examined your choices and narrowed it down, attend a class or two. Chances are you'll have to work out a financial arrangement with the instructor, but most will probably be compassionate enough to allow you to train for a class or two at little or no cost.

NOTE: Beware the schools that charge you extensively for one class! If you're paying more than $40 or $50 for that initial class or two, you may have encountered a school whose goals are not in alignment with your own. I've found that some schools place monetary gain above the martial art, itself, and thus lose sight of the reason the true warrior enters the dojo in the first place.

Next step: DIVIDE AND CONQUER! Instead of trying to focus on multiple schools and styles, narrow your choice down to one style, maybe two at the most, and throw yourself into it headfirst. Glean as much information as possible from your instructors and students higher in rank than you. Attain rank, yourself. Or, if you're in a school that doesn't acknowledge formal ranking, attain respect as an aid to the instructor (this will be equivalent to rank). After you've spent years immersing yourself in a specific style, learning all the intricacies inherent in every technique and attaining instructor status, it's time to examine another art, if you haven't started dabbling already.

One thing to keep in mind: studying another martial art does not mean you throw your "old" style by the wayside. At this point it's too late for that. For better or for worse it's in your blood. It's a part of who you are: how you move, how you interact with others, how you walk to work or to school, it's a part of how you eat your food. If you've studied with enough dedication and seriousness, it will be more a part of your daily life than you ever imagined. This will influence you as you move on to the next style, and that's OK. Instead of being "green" to the world of martial arts, you now have a better idea of your own preferences within the art, of your own physical and mental limitations. And so you'll adapt.

This is the healthiest way to study the martial arts - with an open mind. Some stuff works. Other stuff doesn't. You will be the judge after you've tried it. What may look impractical in sparring may be the most sensible thing to do in a fight. And what may look practical for someone else may not be for your own body type. Regardless, try it. See if it works for you. Listen to your instructors respectively, try your damnedest to execute the technique properly, and keep learning! With such a healthy mix of martial arts styles, you have to treat it like the food pyramid. Mix a little bit of everything - some in greater quantities than others - and you'll wind up a wonderfully well-rounded martial artist.

- J

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Baby Steps

How do we get from point A to point B? What's the shortest distance between two points?

A straight line, right? True enough. But if we're going to Johnny-Cash that line, we have to know the proper way to get from point A to point B. Do we run? Do we jump? Do we hop-scotch?

In the martial arts, in order to get from one point in your training to another, you have to simply go at it one step at a time. There's no secret formula. No magic lamp you can rub that will grant you three wishes. You have to do that one thing that your parents were so proud they saw you do for the first time when you were young - take baby steps.

Baby steps is one of my favorite analogies. People always try to do more than they're capable of. Sometimes they succeed, but more often than not they fail. It's not because of a lack of desire or passion. It's because people try to skip steps and they move too fast.

Baby steps.

Yes, some people can achieve things in leaps and bounds. They can memorize a 30-move form in 15 minutes, not practice it for a week, then come back and perform it with precision and power. For others, it's not so simple. Even the people than can perform such feats will one day hit a barrier. They'll plateau out, get frustrated at their lack of progress, grow impatient and quit.

Baby steps.

Baby steps requires patience. It's a virtue for a reason. I don't claim to be a religious man, but I do understand that the seven "heavenly" virtues hold merit. Patience counters anger. When we grow angry, we put on blinders and block out many of the important things. We forget to keep our balance while performing a kata. We forget to breathe while we're sparring. We forget to respect our opponent. We forget to take...

Baby steps.

Even if you feel yourself quickly learning the martial arts, or an aspect therein - or anything for that matter! - learn to take those baby steps. Take your time. You'll get there at some point. It may take you longer than others and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. As long as you can take it one step at a time, that point B will eventually be right in front of you, close enough so that you can touch it. All you have to remember is...

Baby steps.

Because after you've reached point B, you'll look up at the horizon and see point C.

- J