Learning is Endless

The Basics are the Advanced Techniques

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Sun, 24 Jun 2007 22:52:27

by Richard Conceicao

Hello Everyone

Well, it was the first day of summer and it felt cooler than spring. You don’t hear me complaining though, the heat just makes me stupid (alright, stupider!).

With all the seminars, workshops, and other educational opportunities buzzing around, the issue of “cross training” has once again reared it’s head, I thought I would indulge myself with some thoughts on the matter.

As sensei Abernathy said in one of his articles, all martial artists of old were generalists. They had to be. They all had a primary weapon as a specialty, but they would be fools if they had no knowledge of other weapons, or empty hand techniques. After all, what do you do if you drop your spear by accident? Other than pray. They may not have been as good at throwing as a modern day Judo practitioner, that is his specialty. They did however, know a few throws, and where able to pull them off in the heat of a “kill or be killed” battle. Something that I doubt the modern Judo practitioner would be able to do. Sports are not duels to the death.

So then, how did these people learn these other skill? Did they cross train? Not really, at least the way we mean it nowadays. Each classical art (Jap. RYU) included all of these skills in the curriculum. Chinese arts have four “compulsory weapons”. These being staff, spear, saber, and double edge sword. While each person used the weapon that they were told to, it being the army after all, they had to have a working knowledge of them all. This extended to empty hand arts. It was felt that each weapons way of being used and distinct motions taught the empty hand practitioner something of value, even though you were never expected to use a weapon ever. You even see this in many Okinawan karate styles. You have to learn Kobudo as part of the style.

What then, is all the fuss about? I feel it breaks down to essentially two concerns: 1. Don’t attempt another set of skills until you can master the ones your primary art demands of you, and 2. Don’t go out there and come back with something I don’t know about or can’t do.

Of the two, obviously the first one deserves serious consideration. One instructor used to ask his teacher about something he heard about or saw in a movie only to be told “You cannot yet walk! Why do you ask of these things”! He had not mastered the basics of his art, and without that he couldn’t really learn other skills. Basics are the foundation for everything. Most people slide as quick as they can through the basics “to get to the good things”. To put it plainly; after all the years they put in training, they still suck at what they do.

I think though that a distinction has to be made here. Some people take a hard line approach, i.e. Nobody below 2nd. Dan is allowed to anything else. I have even heard this stretched to 6 dan.  To me that is excessive. Unless one has an extraordinary teacher, who can show you all facets of the art, if you wait that long you will probably not be very well rounded.

But let us posit a different approach. Suppose you are learning a hip or leg throw as part of your training. Do you think it unwise to go to Judo or Jiu-jitsu practitioner and ask them to show you how they do that throw? I don’t. I may never be able to do it as well as him, but I stand a good chance of learning it better than from someone who doesn’t practice it one hundred times a day. Of course, the reverse is also true. If he wanted to learn a good round kick, would it make sense for him to ask you? These questions seem to answer themselves.

This to me is the first facet of cross training. Taking a skill that emphasized in one art and learning the way they do it to enhance your own. One can see that this is not the same as deeply learning that second art, but knowing a few words and phrases of a foreign language does not mean you can speak it fluently, but it sure helps. This was the ultimate goal of the Liberal Arts education, to make you aware of many things so that you would be well rounded individual. Later if you wanted to, you could specialize.

The next facet is watching the concepts and approaches in other arts, and looking to find similarities in yours. They are not always apparent on the surface, but you can be richly rewarded by diving in. If we realize that everyone of these arts is based on the idea that the opponent has two arms, legs, and a head that sits on something in the middle, then they all have to have a common core. The differences are emphasis, strategy, and cultural context. How can you miss? I may not be able to do Tai-Chi, but is fascinating to find a move that is mirrored in one of our forms. It may have a different approach, but the technique, in principle, is identical.

The last facet is the hardest, complete mastery of two arts. This one is self explanatory and one that none of us may ever attain. I must say, it doesn’t hurt to try though.

The second concern, “Don’t go out there and learn something that I don’t know about, or I can’t do”, is unfortunately the most common one. It usually comes under the disguise of the first concern. People, especially instructors who love the adoration and respect that they get from their students every day, have a hard time admitting that there are limits to there knowledge. In addition they sometimes fear that if you learn something from someone else you will not only think less of them, but then go elsewhere, thus costing them money. A shame really, but all too human.

I feel this type of attitude is quite damaging to all concerned. The teacher is no longer looking at his students from the historical perspective: “The greatest gift a teacher can give is to have his students be better than he is.” What is developing is the beginning of a cult (my opinion!!). In addition his students are not free to explore aspects of their arts that are not emphasized by the instructor. This takes away from them developing their own individual expression, which is supposed to be what they are there for. That is the essence of a personal “art”.

I met a kung fu instructor who has an open class on Sundays. In this class he is no longer the Sifu, he is just another guy. Every other day he teaches you what he knows. On Sunday you show him what you know. Should you kick him through the wall, or throw him to the ground, that is all fine, he has no problem with that.

My little workshop on the breakdown of Keumgang appeared to be well received. The students were impressed that what appeared to be a kind of “nothing” form, there are no low blocks, no kicks etc, could contain so many different types of techniques. Yet they had practiced this form many times. As my own mental joke, I even did the form with a six foot staff and did not violate the form motions in any way. How come I could see these applications that they could not?

Please, do not sell yourselves short.