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A couple of good martial arts articles by Phillip Starr

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by Phillip Starr


In days long since past, the village kung-fu teacher also frequently served as the village doctor. He might not have had much knowledge regarding the treatment of many ailments but he was usually quite skilled in dealing with various injuries. Many teachers were highly skilled in one of the fields of traditional Chinese medicine; acupuncture, tui-na (remedial massage), herbal medicine, and of course, qigong. This was a tradition that continued for many generations until fairly recently.


In his well-known book, Iron and Silk. author Mark Salzman tells the story of what happened when he went into a local park (in China) to practice. In a short time, he was surrounded by many people who asked if he would treat their injuries and/or illnesses. He knew nothing about Chinese medicine but the people would have none of it; tradition held that anyone who possessed skill in martial arts was also trained in traditional medicine!


As karate developed in Okinawa, various aspects of Chinese medical therapy were taught along with it. The herbal preparations were often mixed with local herbal mixtures and techniques to produce therapies that were uniquely Okinawan.


In my first book, The Making Of A Butterfly (those of you who haven t read it should pick up a copy!), I relate the story of watching my teacher perform acupuncture on his lovely wife. Scared me to death! Remember - I was just a young American who had never even HEARD of shoving needles into people like that! But my teacher assured me that this was a very common form of Chinese medicine and over the years, he taught me as best he could. I would later construct a small clinic within my martial arts school and treat many, many patients.


It is terribly unfortunate that the tradition of teaching healing techniques along with martial arts techniques and forms has, for the most part, been lost. I require all of my senior students to learn certain aspects of Chinese medicine as well as first-aid and CPR. It is important for them to understand what Mei (my teacher s beautiful wife) once told me& that healing and hurting are two sides of the same coin. To truly understand and acquire real martial skill, one must understand both sides of the coin. And, my teacher added, as we move down the path of life we all have more opportunities to apply healing skills than destructive, fighting skills.


Moreover, the principles of (Chinese and old, traditional Okinawan) martial arts are based upon the principles that are found in their traditional healing arts. To gain a true and full understanding of these principles, one must study the healing arts. And, I would add, to truly understand the essence and spirit of martial arts, one must acquire some measure of skill and/or knowledge in the arts of healing.



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by Phillip Starr

Students sometimes envy instructors who were taught in the “old way” and, because they revere them and aspire to their teacher's level of expertise, they ask that they be taught in the same manner as their instructors were taught. They believe that the “old ways” of teaching were somehow superior to the methods currently employed by most martial arts teachers and in many ways, they are wrong.

China, Okinawa, Japan, Korea, and most other Asian cultures were heavily influenced by the tenets of Confucianism and for all their efforts to model themselves after the West, they still are. The influence of Confucian principles is particularly easy to see in the educational systems of Eastern cultures. Students are expected to commit the words of their textbooks to memory. Individual creativity is not encouraged at all. Educators strive to “rubber stamp” their students through school, creating generations of perfect imitations.

This method of teaching and learning naturally carried over into their martial disciplines. Students learned by rote and by mimicking the teacher's movements as exactly as possible. While this is necessary for beginners, there comes a time when students need to “adjust” the various postures and techniques according to their own unique physical structures. But many, if not most, of the instructors in those days insisted that students adhere to the “traditional” method of learning. This sometimes resulted in what we would regard as ridiculous training routines.

For instance, one well-known Japanese karate organization once had foot positions of the various stances painted on the floor of the dojo. The foot positions for the horse-riding stance, the forward stance, and the other fundamental stances were all clearly shown on the floor. Students were all expected to stand with their feet at exactly the same length and width as those painted on the floor because the painted footprints were precisely identical to the founder's stances. This presented a real problem for students whose legs were longer or shorter than those of the founder because the length of one's legs and the width of one's hips determine the (proper) length and width of one's stances! This fact was ignored by the instructors who insisted that everyone, regardless of size, maintain exactly the same length and width of their stances.

Newbies were generally expected to simply “follow along.” Detailed instruction as to the “how” or “why” of anything simply didn't exist. If a novice was lucky, a more senior student might take him under his wing and provide a bit of guidance. The headmaster had little interest in novices; most beginners gave up after a few weeks, so why should he waste his valuable time trying to teach them anything? Nay, he reserved his precious time for those who had proven themselves worthy of his instruction.

It's easy to see how many students could easily develop bad habits and “glitches” in their techniques. Unless the instructor took a special interest in them (which was exceedingly rare), their errors would remain uncorrected. If you're really following me here, you'll see that the teacher himself might very well have “glitches” in his own technique because he had been taught in the same manner. These flaws would subsequently be passed on to his students, many of whom would eventually pass them on to their own students.

Asking questions was absolutely forbidden. To ask a question was often regarded as questioning the teacher's knowledge or his ability to provide adequate instruction. Such behavior was frequently dealt with in a rather harsh manner. Initially, my own teacher was like this. I remember asking about a particular technique that I didn't understand. He demonstrated its application by striking my arm with such force that I was knocked to the ground! Fortunately, he eventually understood that Westerners are taught from childhood to ask questions because this is how we learn and he realized that it was actually a good thing!

Minimal instruction as to the “how” of various techniques and movements was provided. One was expected to learn by carefully observing the seniors or the teacher and then imitating them. Almost none of the “why” was ever explained. The truth is that most instructors were clueless as to the “why” of many facets of their arts. But none of this really mattered, anyway. It was understood that no one was to ask questions, so a clueless teacher very rarely had to try to explain anything.

Moreover, the Japanese and Okinawan teachers who were trained during the years just prior to WWII approached their training with a rather militaristic attitude. Classes during this time were strongly influenced by nationalism and the “rah-rah, hurray for us” mindset. Consequently, training often crossed the line from vigorous to brutal and foolhardy. Injuries were common and sometimes quite severe; some students died as a result. When these Eastern students ventured to the West and opened their own schools, they taught their students as they had been taught.

The problem was exacerbated when American soldiers who were stationed in Japan and Okinawa after the war took up the “exotic” Eastern forms of hand-to-hand combat. They naturally approached the martial arts with a military demeanor and when they began to teach, this was the approach they used. I remember well my first American karate teachers who, as veterans, ran their classes in a manner akin to boot camp.

It was only after the martial arts had been in the West for some time that the teaching methods began to change. Westerners would usually provided more detailed instruction than did their Eastern counterparts and most of them actually encouraged students to ask questions.

So if you take the time to reflect on how the martial arts were taught “in the old days”, you'll realize how inefficient it was. It sounds good and looks even better on the silver screen, but the reality of it was much different. If your teacher takes the time to ensure that you doing everything just right and he provides detailed instruction in a reasonably safe environment, you should thank him. Big time.

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