Modern martial art students separate their martial art training from the rest of their life. Compartmentalizing it as an activity that they share with people they barely know. They go to work, watch television, attend events and family outings without integrating or considering their martial art practice. It is just another activity on a full schedule.
This was not the way for students in the past. Martial art training was one aspect of an individual’s education. Reading, writing, studying the classics of philosophy, history, and medicine were all taught with the martial forms.
Those times were different. Institutions resembling modern police were rare and were often worse than the criminals. Hospitals were rarer still; the notion of an ambulance coming to carry you to a doctor after an injury wasn’t even a dream.
Times have changed. In most countries we don’t think about police, fire, and medical institutions. We assume they are nearby and able to protect the peace, defend our property, or treat an illness. Our ability to focus on our jobs, our family, or our studies while fearlessly attending social events is proof that those institutions are at work in our society.
Despite these improvements to our social structure, selling martial arts as a method for self-defense is popular. Martial art schools market self-defense classes to attract new students, hoping to engage them in further training. But the time and training needed to apply even the most aggressive martial art for self-defense is greater than the casual student is ready to undertake. Most who attend such classes never return because they are uncomfortable with the concepts or view the training as ridiculous.
Some—who see violence and danger around every corner—continue their training. Schools cater to those remaining students with classes of applications or sparring tournaments. I have attended these classes and thought them ridiculous. The hard training, the training required to develop skill in any boxing form is ignored for esoteric exercises, and preposterous application demonstrations. The result is that those who choose to engage a thief or an armed attacker with their martial art training are injured or killed.
Schools that focus on sparring and applications are successful at regional tournaments. A few have developed positive reputations in their community. I do not begrudge those schools the path they have chosen; it is one way. I don’t think it is the right way to promote martial arts in the modern world, and some simple evidence supports my conclusion.
There are more martial art studios in America than Dunkin Donuts, yet most Americans have little understanding of the martial arts, and even fewer have engaged in martial art training. Most Americans have eaten a doughnut. But with so many martial art studios, why so little engagement in the martial arts?
This disconnect is because martial art training has lost its way. The focus is on a single aspect of the art, violence. Search YouTube and you will find thousands of videos illustrating applications and few teaching techniques. Search the wider Internet and you will find thousands upon thousands of forum and blog posts arguing about which art could defeat another but few supporting someone’s practice, or offering new insights into how to practice.
To the student and the school, I say it is time to restore the real meaning of practice.
Students, engage your martial art training in every aspect of your life, use it to evaluate yourself, and the world around you. Study the classics of history, philosophy, and medicine to supplement your practice. Read a book. Take a walk. Sit in meditation.
Schools, stop with the endless application sessions, and follow the harder path of form and physical training.
Students, I know that you are frightened. Violence and danger are a part of life, but humanity has developed institutions and technologies to enhance individual safety. Take advantage of tools like security alarms, pepper spray, and a Taser for self-defense. Practice martial arts for personal growth and a healthy lifestyle. I promise your fear will vanish.
Schools, I know it is tough. Overhead alone will drive you to bankruptcy. But catering to fear and violence will never sustain your membership. Doubt me? Then why is the Yoga studio across the street full Tuesday night? And Wednesday morning, for that matter? If your Tuesday night class is empty, volunteer somewhere in the community, and grow your membership that way, not with another weapon class for the one or two Chuck Norris fans. Better yet, take the movie star wannabes with you to your community service. With this simple change in focus, from violence to personal growth, I predict more students will come on Tuesday night, and come back on Thursday night as well.
My Taijiquan book, Focus Taijiquan — A Study of the Taijiquan Classics is an excellent introduction to the internal martial arts. This book is a pragmatic approach to the fundamentals of practice and the Tai Chi Chuan classics. If you are discouraged by martial art schools focusing on applications, then this book is a good place to start. Using martial art practice for physical fitness began centuries ago. The forms you see today were designed for fitness and personal growth.
The martial art most criticized for losing combat effectiveness, Taijiquan, is proof that transforming your art from violence to personal development is effective. Taijiquan is the most practiced, studied, and taught martial art in the world.
Finally, the genesis of this article is the gun violence epidemic in America. While the political class is discussing the value and rights of gun ownership, I see a different problem. While your fear feels real, the enemy is imagined. The good news is that if you approach genuine martial art practice with a full heart, the enemy and the fear will vanish. I could be wrong, but I doubt the lone gunman spent an extended time practicing the martial arts for personal development.
In the modern world, we need martial art training to fight our sloth, our stress, our distractions, and our boredom. Our challenge, my challenge, is to present the arts in a way that will create that engagement.