I will here be sharing some of the concepts I learned practicing different martial arts and how they apply to any style and sometimes affect daily life as well. I did not come up with these ideas, but I rediscovered them with the help of good teachers, through practice and reflection. I won’t mention any styles here, it isn’t the point. If you want to know what I practice, read more of my blog. There are no secrets in martial arts. What works just does, it doesn’t matter where it came from and what it’s called.
Relaxation: Here is one concept that applies to martial arts as well as life in general, when anything comes at you at high speed to hit you. Have you ever heard that drunks usually don’t get hurt in car accidents? That’s because they are loose. Tension in your body at the moment of impact will create injury. A friend of mine once had a minor fender bender, but she pushed on the break pedal so hard that her foot shattered on impact, multiple fractures. Had she loosened up, there would have been no damage. The same goes for receiving punches. The problem is that it takes quite a bit of practice to be able to relax in such situations. Breathing helps, and I will get to that later. In any case, you will reduce your chances of getting injured by relaxing your body. If zero was no tension at all, and ten the tenser you could be, I would say three would be a good number to receive a punch. That would be just about the same amount of tension you have while doing a relaxed push-up. Most martial arts do not teach relaxation, on the contrary. They teach tension and aggressiveness, to beginners at least. When you see old timers though, you can tell they are much looser, and it works. Having most of your muscles work at the same time, many not needed for the task will also burn a whole lot of oxygen. You will get tired much faster being tense. When I was doing kick-boxing at age 18, a two-minute round was exhausting. Today, I can go much longer with more efficiency, and I’m 41. Same goes for other physical activities, use your imagination here.. Try practicing relaxed, you will soon see a huge improvement in your performance and ability to take strikes.
Breathing: Relaxation has to be in tune with breathing. We have a certain amount of energy stored in our body from food. You can’t however pull out a candy bar when someone tries to rob you.. It would take too long to take effect anyway. For immediate strength, you need oxygen. Most people will stop breathing when they get into a fight.. It still happens to me once in a while, ground-fighting, or doing anything stressful I am not accustomed to. Then, I realize it, but it’s too late. You end-up panting and can’t catch up. All your attention is on getting more air, and the punches keep coming; not good. You need to practice breathing continuously, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Inhaling from your nose helps slowing down your breathing but also helps cool your brain, which under stress needs it badly. Exhaling helps relax and makes you less prone to injury. When someone comes at me, I exhale and relax instead of tense up and stop breathing. You can practice this by having a friend walk to you with his arm extended and a fist, you step aside exhaling and relaxing; do it slow. Relaxing will save oxygen, and proper breathing brings it to you. It’s a win-win combination.
Blocking: Repeat after me: “blocking is bad.” Well, I shouldn’t say that.. let’s just say that in my opinion you should only block if absolutely necessary. Why? Because it hurts, and you can end-up with a broken arm. It also adds time between the attack and your counter attack. Blocking obviously has it’s place in training, but I think that there often not enough emphasis on vacating your spot when a strike comes. Once a friend of mine, interested in MMA asked me “so, you mean you don’t block! what do you do, step aside?” and chuckled.. I replied “yes.” Most of the time you only need to step aside a few inches to avoid a strike. It sounds too simple, but it works. I’ll elaborate more about movement, but it is much better to redirect a punch than block it. Get used to block, and some day, you might try to block a baseball bat. Guess what? Unless you’re some kind of freak, the bat wins and your skull might be next. You avoid a strike with your feet (moving), not your arms (blocking). Again, that applies to life in general as well, like for falling objects, cars, etc. You don’t block a car.. To practice, put your hands in your pockets and have a friend throw very slow punches at you. Move aside as little as possible to avoid getting hit. Also, do not bend your back, I’ll get to that..
Form and stances: The same friend I mentioned before wanted to spar, so we did. He mostly came at me with his head down. All I had to do was get in and push his head further down to my knee or the ground (he was also shorter). He had really good moves, but he wasn’t able to take advantage of them because he didn’t keep his form. When you get really good (I’m not there yet), you can bend the rules, and your back.. In general however, keeping your back straight will save you a lot of trouble. Your position is much better when your spine is aligned and strong. You can still move very efficiently that way, with your knees slightly bent, very naturally. This brings me to stances. Like it or not, we are not monkeys, or cranes, or tigers, but humans. What might work for these animals doesn’t necessarily work for us. A stance also limits your mobility, and will also warn your attacker that you may have some skills. It is easier to move in a natural position, something we do every day. Back straight, small steps, knees slightly bent, you start to get the picture.. Many strong positions in classic martial arts come from a past when a punch had to go through body armor be be effective; that is no longer necessary. What about your arms? Well, I like to keep one arm up, but not in a fist, just touching my chin, as if I was thinking of some problem. It is non-threatening (as to not escalate a situation), and makes my elbow ready to roll-in a punch. When it hits the fan, you won’t necessarily have time to get into a stance, and once chaos takes over, your nice stance won’t be there anyway. Personally, I forgot about stances all together and just concentrate on keeping my form. It has worked wonders.
Movement: Stand still, and you’re a sitting duck. Simple concept, hard to do in practice. Our brain needs more time to process information it isn’t used to receive, like a flurry of punches. Then, it needs to find out what to do next. That’s when we stop, and wham! Lights out.. This is especially true while being shot at. Very unlikely you might say, and you’re right, but it happens. In a fight, or combat, an attacker aims at your head and your body. Stand still and he will find his marks. You don’t need to move a whole lot, only a few inches, but continuously, that is the hard part. If you need to go down, squat, with your back straight. Move around the attacker. Moving away works if you can simply run away. Otherwise, you just prolong the violence. You need to move close to do your work.. Try to face your opponent while you move. If you get struck, you can just move away the part of your body that receives the blow. Moving around also allows you to see around, look for other potential threats. You can almost always move aside and redirect blows, kicks, and whatever else. Many martial arts teach techniques with pauses, you do one, two, three, four, with a slight stop in between.. Try to do the whole move in one. There should be no stopping. Movement should flow like water.
Vision: An obvious necessity.. You need to see what comes at you to avoid it. Your retina is composed of rods and cones. The cones make you see in color and focus on details. the rods are more numerous and only “see” in black and white, but they are very sensitive to movement in an almost 180 degrees field. You’re better off using the rods. We tend to focus on objects threatening us, like on the knife of an attacker. That however limits our options. Remember than our natural reflexes are for the good of the specie in general, and might not always be best for the individual in specific situations. I find it more efficient to use my peripheral vision. To do so, I tend not to focus on any particular point of the attacker’s body, and this way, I see it all. I set my gaze to one side over the person’s shoulder. Anything moving anywhere in my field of vision gets picked-up by the rods on my retina and prompts immediate action. No need to lose time on details all the time. I will focus for instance during a knife disarm, to see on which side the edge is, but most of the time, I try not to. Use your peripheral vision, you will see “more,” like that guy’s buddy coming from the side with a broken beer bottle while you choke his friend who tried to hit you.. This is not limited to martial arts either..
Techniques Vs. Principles: Styles limit you. That’s what Bruce Lee found out, and he was right. So many martial arts are in a neat little box. The problem is that if you have to fight someone who has a different box, or worse, no box at all, you’re in trouble.. Then there is always the “my box is better than yours” pissing contest. In truth, who cares?! Remove the box, and let creativity take over. That’s the “art” in “martial arts.” I was once in an MA class, holding a position, fist extended, squared shoulders, which looked more like a yoga pose than anything else. The instructor was walking around “correcting” students. He looked at me and lowered my arm by about two inches. Two inches! What difference does it make? What if my imaginary opponent was taller? The problem became clear to me when once fooling around with my younger brother (I was maybe 17 at the time), I asked him to punch me “like that” to show him a move. He punched me all right, but not the way I had anticipated, and it hurt. This is why black belts get creamed by street thugs. You never do the same move twice, and every situation is different. You might need to learn basic techniques when you start, but overall, it is much better to learn sound principles. When I spar with beginners and take them down in a very creative way, they often ask “how did you do that?” and I just say “I have no idea!” We then have to do it again slower to find out. Never have a “battle plan” in hand-to-hand combat, because it will never work. It is by nature to unpredictable. My point is, if you practice a certain style, try something new. If you have a rigid instructor, get together with other practitioners and explore different avenues, visit other schools. Look at what works from one style to another, what doesn’t.. You can apply the principles I am outlining here to your style. You don’t have to forget what you’ve learned. Just free yourself of techniques, be creative, you will amaze yourself.
Train slow: Many martial artists think that training slow is a waste of time. If you are offered to drive a nascar racer, do you take it to 200mph on your first run? I doubt it.. Read this excellent article (PDF) to understand why. Basically, your brain needs to form new pathways so that your response becomes automatic. A different part of the brain is involved. If you can’t do it properly slow, you won’t be able to do it fast. It is much a matter of proper timing. The speed will come naturally later. You don’t need to be faster than your opponent, just match his speed. There is no such thing as training too slow. Give your brain the time to learn proper body mechanics and timing. Get used to not flinch upon attacks, but instantly move the right way. Slow training will help you achieve this. Fast sparring is necessary, but only after you acquire the required mechanics. Skip that part and you may pick-up many bad habits that may hamper your training for years.
Ego: Having a good opinion of yourself is great, you should. Sometimes though, ego gets us in trouble, especially with martial arts. If a beginner slugs me in the face and I fall on my ass, I burst out laughing! It is just funny to me, and a learning experience. For some people, it is a most humiliating ans stressful experience; imagine, all those years of training to get owned by a newbie!.. In a seminar with different styles, I worked with a black belt instructor (I don’t have a belt, we don’t use them). He was good, but I was more relaxed and could get to him without too much trouble. He was getting quite “panicky” because his students were around and he wasn’t performing up to his expectations.. So what? We’re among friends here, who cares who’s better? Belts and ranks put too much pressure on students. High ranking students feel like they have to defend their titles. Me, I like to have fun. I don’t care if a little girl sends me flying like a rag doll, I’ll congratulate her and ask her to show me, even if she’s in her first class. Ego has no place in a dojo, training hall, park, or warehouse where people try to learn a fighting art. Usually, people with ego problems are reminded of that in a hurry, and they often leave after a few classes. Those who stay lose the attitude. The class I frequent is very relaxed, everyone smiles, and we laugh a lot at ourselves and each others, all in good spirit, that’s part of why I keep going!
I don’t consider myself to be an expert. I am offering you tips that worked for me. I practiced a bunch of martial arts when I was a teenager, but never stuck with any of them, because they didn’t work in real life. Then, a couple decades later, I found what I was looking for, and doing so, found out why. Feel free to discuss those principles here (register to post comments) or ask questions. No style wars though! The purpose of martial arts is to make our lives better, healthier, free of stress, and keep us and our loved ones safe. It has changed mine, I love that stuff!