Sunday, December 9, 2012

Evolution is Traditional

Ok, I already know that the title of this article has some of you crying and curling up in the corner in horror, and that's ok.  But for the rest of you that get all the way through this because you have solid critical thinking skills, I think I can make a solid point for this idea.  But I do what to make a disclaimer that I am NOT in any way insulting the traditional arts, just pointing out how things were always done, until recently that is.  So put on your big boy thinking caps and lets dive into this!

The title of the article sums it up.  Evolution and adaptation in the Chinese martial arts was the norm until this past century.  Then a combination of factors conspired to freeze the Chinese martial arts in place, but as many of you who are familiar with Taoist thought would know, change is the way of nature.  Standing still and never growing or changing is against the Tao.  There are many great examples of this idea, but for a solid starting point lets ask............Why are there so many styles of the same martial art?  Look at my art of Xingyi.  The historically verified founder is Ji Ji Ke, right?  So originally we had one unique style of martial arts that began in the 17th century.  But today, how many different branches and styles of Xingyi are there?  Off the top of my head there are- Sun, Hebei, Henan, Shanxi, Dai, Wudang............need I go on?  All of these branches sprang up within 300 years or so, pretty clearly showing that evolving arts were normal and accepted in old China, so why not now?

Another amazing example is Bagua.  Dong Hai Chuan created his art according to popular legend from a wide variety of arts that he knew before mixed with Taoist walking techniques.  Is that not evolution, or changing from one thing to something else?  To complicate matters more, he taught his art eight different ways to eight different disciples.  He wasn't a master of Shuai Chiao, but he changed Cheng Tinghua's original style and mixed it with the Bagua he was teaching at the time, and look how well that turned out!  By today's standards, if you aren't personally a master of a style, many traditional teachers would be horrified and personally insulted if you offered ideas for shaping that art, even if they were ideas that came from a style you had mastered.  See what I mean?  How was it ok in Old China to do this, but not now?  Even more change came when when Gao style bagua was created by Gao Yi Sheng and he added the 64 linear palms to Bagua.  I haven't ever heard that his teacher Cheng Ting Hua was upset because of that.  That probably comes back to the issue of "If you know and understand an art, you have the right to change it"  Don't get me wrong though, I am not saying the traditional arts need to be radically changed, but I will explain that later.  (Didn't want to give anyone a heart attack)  How many different styles of Bagua are there today?  Look at how much the original art has changed and been added to in 150 years!  How can anyone say that change wasn't natural for the Chinese masters?  Sun Lu Tang had no issues at all taking what he knew and creating his own Tai Chi style based off of his Bagua and Xingyi, and even those two original arts that come down from Sun are unique and different than many other branches.  So it can be said he created one art and altered two others.  Here is one last example in Praying Mantis.  According to the limited lore surrounding Praying Mantis that I know, it was derived from 18 different martial arts by a man named Wang Lang.  One of the popular myths is that his art came from his meeting with 17 other masters when they were invited to Shaolin to IMPROVE THE SHAOLIN ARTS!  If you don't believe me, check Wikipedia.  It is an accepted myth that Shaolin needed help improving their arts then, but why not now?  It seems very strange to me when I listen to people getting offended by thoughts of change and then hearing them proudly talk about the origins of their art which prove that other arts were changed in the creation process.  In any case, there is no way that Wang Lang was old enough to have mastered 18 different martial arts by the time he created Praying Mantis.  If we go with the common understanding that it takes 5 years to learn all of the physical material in a style (not master it) and multiply that by 18, Wang Lang would have finished learning all the arts when he was 90 if he started the day he was born.  I just thought that was a funny idea when I realized it.

In my limited understanding, the halt of progress that we see in CMA started mostly when the arts came to America.  I'm not sure why that is, but for some reason the teachers refuse to accept the idea that arts must grow and change over time.  We see in old China that the masters didn't believe that there was an ultimate art, since they would take what they knew and change it.  And two generations later, someone would add to it or change it again.  This has been the standard practice in CMA since it first began.  Again I would like to say that I am not in any way insulting traditional arts, but the stubborn refusal or modern teachers to change anything, including their way of thinking about the world, simply means that their arts will be gone within a generation or two.  One argument against this article would be that those men who created the original arts were genius.  I can easily accept that, but people didn't stop being smart 50 years ago!  There are many brilliant minds that practice martial arts today.  I personally have two doctors, a pharmacist, a toxicologist and several police officers in my student group.  They are very smart and driven people and their clear understanding of how the body works (The doctors, not the police) have really helped me understand WHY our practices work, looking at it from a western understanding.  This is getting to the point I am trying to make.

 The Chinese masters had a FUNCTIONAL understanding of their arts, and a very good understanding at that.  But they couldn't explain the exact processes involved or just what happened in the body when these practices were used.  That is not an insult in any way, I'm just saying that no one view of things is ever totally accurate.  Here is a great example.  Many of us practice Iron Palm and the other practices for various body parts to harden the bones.  The Chinese masters knew this worked and laid out training programs to achieve it.  But what they didn't know is that the process of hardening happened in a specific way.  When we start to create low amounts of stress on a body part through continued impact, the body cells called osteoblasts are released.  They create a type of collagen in the stressed area and then turn that collagen into bone.  There is another type of cell called osteoclasts that are responsible for removing dead bone cells.  The mechanism of bone hardening comes when more osteoblasts are released than osteoclasts, see?  The bones will constantly be growing.  This offers a different view of traditional Iron Palm in that the stimulation of osteoblasts requires a low grade of stress up front, striking the bag harder in the beginning doesn't cause more osteoblasts, it would increase the removal of dead bone since harder strikes in the beginning do more damage to bone then anything.  I hope I haven't lost anyone.  But to get the bones hardening, use lighter strikes for the first few months THEN start hitting a bit harder.  This is an example of what I hope to accomplish here.  To show that the old masters were in fact correct, but also to use modern understanding to refine and fully understand what we do.  See?  That wasn't such a horrible point, was it?  Reconciling Eastern functional knowledge with Western understanding would be a great way that our arts can change, since we saw in my example that a better understanding will change details of how we practice.

Over time this full understanding of how the body works and grows will naturally lead to our arts evolving and growing, but that is a wonderful thing.  Many teachers now incorporate Yoga into their training programs since it helps the body move better.  That is an evolution in and of itself, and I think a good one at that.  I am not attacking anyone's view of martial arts here, just illustrating history and pointing out that if we want to call ourselves traditional martial artists, we should take a look back in time and see that our martial ancestors had no problem with change and growth.  As those changes lasted a few generations, they became what we call traditional.  Remember, at one time, all our arts were considered mixed martial arts by the people witnessing their growth!

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Americans are so lazy

"The reason Kung Fu isn't growing in the US anymore is because Americans are lazy".  This is the mantra of most Traditional CMA teachers whose schools aren't growing.  Its the easiest way to explain the stagnation of CMA, right?  Nope, its not.  Lets go over some facts and look at why these schools aren't growing at the rate they should be.

First (and most importantly), Americans aren't lazy at all.  In fact many studies have shown that Americans work more and take fewer holidays than most other countries in the world.  Americans are also fanatical when they find a thing they are passionate about, we tend to over do whatever our focus is.  We spend more on participating in sports and building parks and playing fields than any other country as well.   Our children start playing sports competitively at a younger age than most nations, and a big chunk of school budgets are spent on sports teams.  America has more gym's and personal trainers than most other countries as well.  If you look at the average TKD or modern martial arts school in the US, their membership numbers are very high, usually 150-200 students that come at least once a week.  When we look at all these factors, we see that Americans are very passionate about recreational activities, so that in and of itself proves that we aren't lazy as a group.  The being more overweight fact actually strengthens this fact.  If all Americans were in perfect shape, then much more money and time would be spent on recreation!

Secondly, the lazy comment is normally made by teachers with few students as their excuse for not growing. But why would anyone in their right mind want to train with an American teacher who insults other Americans??  Nobody would unless they were trying to find a group that gave them the feeling of mental superiority over others.  As in 'I'm a Kung Fu person and we work harder than anyone else'  That is actually a common thing since humans constantly try to differentiate themselves from others to prove their worth (ask a shrink if you don't believe me).  The phrase "McDonald's Mentality" is used in a derogatory way as well describing the Western desire for quick results, or because they have a specific goal for training and many aren't interested in doing only what the teacher wishes.  Again, who would pay money to be insulted?  What does it say about a teacher who insults his own culture?  This type of  teacher usually doesn't understand that small gains that come quickly are the best way to motivate students to come to class more often and to practice harder at home.  We should show new students simple exercises that are quickly beneficial to excite the student, not cut them down because they want results and aren't interested in following a plan that isn't clearly laid out for progress.

I think teachers who say this are usually the sole party responsible for their school's condition.  We should take several things into consideration when talking about this to get a better understanding of why they are having trouble.  The biggest hurdle for CMA teachers is that Chinese martial arts come from a culture steeped in Confucian ideals and Eastern philosophy and now we are trying to spread in a society that is based off of Western ideals which are the complete opposite.  Its crazy to get upset because an American doesn't come in with the understanding that is needed for success in CMA.  Many teachers think that as soon as a student walks through the door, they should just start obeying without question everything the teacher says, but that is contrary to the Western mindset.  Americans love to ask "Why", and any teacher who wants to be successful in America would be wise to understand that and be prepared.  I'm not saying that Eastern thinking is wrong by any stretch of the imagination, but I am saying that if you want to take people off the street and turn them into good students, you MUST understand how Americans think and introduce Eastern concepts slowly and in digestible amounts.  Lets think for a second.  If you were that new student and had no idea about CMA or the code of behavior required in a CMA school, you would be confused and maybe even uncomfortable if you are exposed to everything at once.  Think about the Sun Toi or school altar.  An American would have no idea why that was there, since Westerners don't have altars outside of church.  Don't you think that might be something they are uncomfortable about at first?  Or that maybe that is the reason some Americans tie religion and Kung Fu together and avoid it?  There are lots of examples, but if you really want your school to grow, you will sit down and think about what new students have to be feeling or thinking when they come through your doors.

We should also be explaining things at first in a way that Americans can understand.  A great example is "Qi".  The notion of life energy is just now starting to take hold in the Western world and many prospective students would scoff at that idea still.  But a VERY basic idea of "Qi" can be given by teaching the student that the meridians follow the same path as nerves, and that the old Chinese drawings of pressure points are in fact nerve centers.  Even the dimmest student knows that energy runs along our nerves, so the idea of "Qi" suddenly becomes more palatable and easier to accept, right?  Of course that isn't the full theory of energy work, but its an introduction that students can easily understand and the teacher can use that base to introduce more foreign terms and ideas about "Qi" without confusing the student.  See how using terms and words that are directed at the students understanding can make harder concepts easier to understand?  Stance work is another pill that is hard for Americans to swallow.  Most won't understand the point of sitting in horse stance for long periods of time, and there is nothing wrong with that initial way of thinking.  Its the teacher's job to show how stances build strength.  One way to teach it is to push the student on the first lesson, and when they complain about sore muscles at the second lesson, give them a pat on the back for working so hard and point out that their legs are already getting stronger.  Show them how great of an exercise stances are!  That is one thing Americans understand, the need for exercise.  So use that term!  Or show them a student who has been only training a few months and demonstrate how strong his legs are now.  Demonstrate how powerful it will make their kicks.  Anything along these lines is better than a teacher ordering the student to keep doing it without any explanation of why they need it.

Again  I would like to point out that I'm not challenging the old ways of doing things.  But I am saying if you want to mold a person off the street into a dedicated student, you have to make the changes gradually, not full throttle.  Introduce new ideas slowly at first and the understanding will start to snowball and become more complete very quickly.  The reason that TKD schools have so many more students?  Because they know how to teach to Americans.  The same goes for modern martial art groups like the East-West schools, they understand how Americans think and start there.  You might look down on their style (and I'm almost positive that if you think Americans are lazy that you think you are better than TKD) but their results speak for themselves and their schools are growing while yours isn't.  I also think that teachers who say that are usually the least traveled.  I have been lucky enough to travel to many different countries and what I have learned is that people are the same the world over.  They want the same things and they are willing to work hard to get it.  So stop insulting a whole culture just because you aren't happy with your school size, because after all, your school is the product of your efforts, not anyone else's.

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This is a blog devoted to the Chinese Internal martial arts. Our school is located in Vancouver, WA and currently accepting students for group classes, and limited private sessions.