When I say martial arts, Maybe a lot of things come to your mind. Maybe you think of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen or Tony Jaa. Maybe you think of white uniforms and well-co-ordinated movements, perhaps a rough and tumble struggle in an Octagon, or perhaps a lot of people making slow, dance-like postures our in the sun. A lot of movies and video games have filled your heads with some colorful ideas.
However, there is a lot more to the martial arts than meets your pixel-fed eyes. More than entertainment, athletics, aesthetics, or self-protection, the martial arts are about life. About finding your own being and expressing yourself out into the world. Bruce Lee said, “To be a martial artist means to be an artist of life.”
The Conservatives might argue the value of being the defenseless and blameless citizens of the safest and most secluded parts of society. They might even rubbish my post and blame me of inciting the youth into a life of violence. Anyone with a wider view of the world and a decent understanding of life can understand how wrong they are. What I gained from a lifetime of observation and study is something that I might never find the words to explain. But if anyone asks why I always recommend Martial arts as a good activity for all children, here’s what I learned.
Believe it or not, You can tell how effective a fighter is by how they breathe. Your breathing delivers every little thing like your athletic ability, sleeping habits, feelings and even appearances.
At the core of breathing is connecting with our core. Our breath does not originate in our lungs or in our chests, but from deep within. But as simple as breathing seems, effective and efficient breathing can take years of practice. I can think of no better place to learn the essence of breath than in the martial arts. The martial arts are both internal and external. That is, the external knees, elbows, and kicks are most effective when truly connected with the internal essentiality of breath.
One must breathe like children do, filling our cores until our bellies expand. Make no mistake, the modern culture will have us believing that breathing should only be done by the chest, it puts a restriction in our oxygen intake ability as the diaphragm that helps our breath is not fully expanded. Take a deep breath right now and notice a shiver of energy in your back. That’s excess starch in your body being shattered to release raw powerful energy to your system. This is why the belly button is respected as the centre of gravity and energy storage. Because the energy you just touched was the one powerful ally every martial artist has.
Call it Chi, QI, KI(if you are from Japan), Prana(if you are an Indian) or even The Force which might just be short for “Life Force” (assuming you are a Star Wars Fan). It is used for a variety of effects, most of which are borderline impossible. Clinically proven evidence assures increased healing rates, body heat manipulation, Inhuman resilience, Increased cognitive and reaction speeds, there is actually a video documentation of cancer cell destruction. And yet these are but a scratch on the surface.Eschewing this vital part of one’s training has resulted in violent tendencies, crippling over-training damages, freezing in the face of crisis and other long-term health and social troubles people dread.
An ancient Chinese proverb says, “If one’s hand knows what one’s foot is doing, one is dangerous. But if the belly button is not consulted, Havoc will ensue”. Remember that. One’s breath holds the key to one’s emotional state. Master that and you will know how to stay calm even in the worst of crises.
Everyone is in a hurry nowadays. From how we communicate to how we travel, in the blink of an eye, the world is at your fingertips. And why shouldn’t we? There’s so much to do with life, so many responsibilities, so many daily nuances like catching a train or showing up on time. We all want our lives to mean something, for that we assign values to our jobs, our reputations, our loved ones and most of all the ticking bomb called time. Old age will take away our physical prime, slow delivery will steal that precious client, delay in conversation will kill the love between two souls. Thus, with this hectic pace comes a rushed focus on anything we ever do. Be it our moves or our lives.
Driven only by our needs to fill the gap, to sate that hunger and to solve the urgency of the crises, we make rushed decisions. Doing things in the heat of urgency is like a man rushing to an interview, while eating a hot dog. We already know this might never go well. This is how most of us live everyday of our lives. Making calls to ease our minds, never making a decision with eased minds. How do you expect it to end when all your decisions are just an attempt to dodge the end?
All professional athletes, dancers and gymnasts understand the ritualistic nature of slowing down your craft as the key to success in that craft. To Walk before you can run. This is far more than simply warming up. To understand and absorb every technique, every skill, every situation and every person, we go in slow. Making every move perfect to the last millimeter. The footwork, the stance, the balance, the friend, the problem, the interview, the opponent, the decisions, Life as you name it.
Every nook and corner is to be embraced extreme calculation and acceptance on every angle, much like embracing a lover, and then when needed you can rise to the occasion with a fiery passion and absolute abandon. This is how every wise man has ever lived, or how every wise master has ever practiced.
Commit another proverb to your memory. “If you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast.”
The Assigned Power of Words
As every writer, I too am acutely aware of the power of words. Inspiration, Information, Entertainment and even destruction. One of the first lessons Buddhist and Taoist masters taught was never to fight over words. Never. Using words to hurt prides and feelings was too personal a problem to be solved by someone else. Gautam buddha when widely criticized during his early years, professed, “All offered things once rejected, belongs to the offer-maker alone.”
Words are but symbols that are mathematically added and subtracted to make sense. And every symbol has their own meaning at their own time and place. The Swastika was a symbol of progress and good fortune in ancient India, History turned that around with the Nazis. A crucifix was a symbol of fear and oppression among Romans, It became a symbol sacrifice and purity with The advent of Christianity.
Every word and sentence has a meaning behind it that can make sense or confuse. One can understand it by understanding the person offering these. There’s constructive criticism and there’s spite, there’s loving care and there’s manipulation. Do you expect to grow wiser anytime soon if you leap and attack at everything? Let go of all revenge drama movies that cloud your mind. Martial arts or life is not about kicking down doors or crush your enemies. It’s about understanding them, making peace with your place in the world and act to stop harm and render help. It’s not about using fancy tricks to scare thugs as it is to heal bodies and hearts. Does this not apply to our words and our lives too?
Remember, “A Warrior acts. Only a fool reacts.”
Look around you and see how very crippled human kind has become. Stuck to our glowy boxes. Wires feeding our ears. Humped posture and only partial presence in the living world. Imagine living a month without your phone. Without any internet. Without television and movies and music. Do you feel afraid, uncertain, lost? There was a time when sailors understood directions with stars and wind patterns. When letters took weeks before reaching someone, when mothers instinctively knew about the well being of their children across seas and continents. Our senses, minds, and intuition have been substantially dulled. We have all become unwitting victims of ADHD (attention dissociative hyperactivity disorder). There was a time when we would just be called absent-minded.
We are all paranoiac, dreading things that might never happen. We are all schizophrenics, living in an imaginary world inside our own heads. We are all demented, living good and bad moments over and over again. We are insane because we aren’t where we should be. The real, living world as it is.
There have been examples of animals showing signs of heightened intelligence, like a horse solving mathematical equations by the number of clicks by his hoof, or a cat mastering the game of switcheroo. Many an expert called it an anomaly of nature and attempted to dissect their heads to examine them. The poor men never realized the level of attention the horse gave to the breath of his owner, to stop clicking whenever he exhaled with relief. Or the cat with her utmost attention to her masters hands. Laser sharp reflexes and ability to read minds were never a mystical occurrence. It was always the mark of a naturally healthy and aware individual.
With a 3-4 pound fist or kick travels at the apex speed of 13 meters per second, it generates roughly a force of 7000 newtons ( seven hundred kilograms) at the point of contact. It’s almost like a car crash that happens through the body to another. Even with all the protective gear getting punched (or kicked) in the head is no joke. The stakes are high. To a Martial arts practitioner, nothing brings one to the present moment like a fight, practice fight or real. This is how a Japanese Kensei (sword saint) could silence challengers by catching a fly in mid flight using only his chopsticks. This is how cold war spies could smell out poisoned glasses of wine, or Vietnam veterans could spot a landmine.
But It’s not just combat where you can find the practice of staying present as an utmost challenge. Inner Stillness can be just as difficult as a day in a battlefield. Ask any yoga enthusiast. This is why ancient masters added meditation to their regular practice. Calling it Tao, Chan and Zen, they integrated speeding up and slowing down to their practice of finding awareness. If there is ever a power that has lifted us off the animalistic food chain it’s awareness. Awareness of the strength in our legs made us stand, awareness of usefulness or sticks and stones made us survivors, awareness of right and wrong made us civilized.
Incredible hours put into meditation is what gave ancient yogis the ability to survive on trace amounts of air in their lungs and bits of food stuck between their intestines. Awareness of one’s heartbeat and blood flow to our veins can help us redirect blood and speed recovery, effectively healing faster. One can even be aware of the heat generated in our systems and redirect and even amplify the heat to other body parts. 17th century Indian Saint Gyaneshwara actually helped his sister make food right off the physical heat of his back.
The implications are endless. Awareness truly is everything. With it, everything we call a miracle is as easy as breathing. Without it, we are but mindless zombies scouring the world for a doomed sustenance.
Make this the motto of your life. “All we ever have is right now.”
Harmony over Conflict
This one is the hardest and most bitter of lessons I learned as a disgruntled teen and then a disillusioned youth. As a martial arts enthusiast, as an athlete, as a son, and as a human, life’s greatest battles are fought within. Even in actual fights, the greatest obstacle we face is our own fear, our own breath, or our own tension. A martial artist starts with this simple fact in mind. The battles will be won when we’re willing to face ourselves. Whenever overwhelmed, terrified or in great danger, they remember to breathe.
Consider a student in an exam hall. He nervously struggles to remember the answer, the harder he tries the harder it eludes him. Or how terrified or frozen one becomes when facing a camera, or a live audience or a when one’s lies have been discovered and they are confronted. See how caught up a person can be in their own problems, that they forget basic human decency and act rude. How easily can all this be managed if we resolve our inner arguments? How much better we can deal with all of this when our inner selves are in complete sync with our lives.
Perhaps you have a very critical parent or a short-tempered better half. You can spend years and years slowly drifting away from them, you can be offended by their hurtful words and feel isolated by their refusal to understand. Or perhaps you could see them as they are. Perhaps you could see the bubble of loneliness around them, perhaps see the beliefs they have maintained that cause them incredible pain, perhaps see how their words are driven by their feelings and see beyond their judgements how and why they have made them. After years of isolation, I wish I could tell my own mother what she wanted to hear when she said “You won’t bother even if I’m dead.” I want to say it and mean it, “I need you.”
It takes an Incredible amount of Courage to live by your heart. So, perhaps next time when you hear, “Truly brave is the warrior that conquers not a thousand foes in battle, but the one within himself.” Perhaps you will be that warrior, and hopefully so will I.
A Journey without end
Let’s be honest with ourselves. How many of us have dreamt of becoming a master martial artist only for the eventual confrontation with overwhelming odds so we can win with the old Chuck Norris smile and walk away into the sunset with a beautiful arm candy? Or perhaps enrolled into yoga classes so we can dazzle an onlooker with a stunning physical shape. Or Gyming, or dieting or any number of endeavours we strive to get what we want. And thus nearly every human being ends up in the same predicament, not getting what we want and breaking down, or getting what we want and breaking down because we couldn’t hold on to it.
In our culture, we keep scores, marks and competition. It’s always about Winners versus losers. Gaining versus losing weight, even if that weight is functional as a strong, heavy skeleton or just fat. Has anyone ever had a perfect score, a perfect life, a perfect anything? Has a victory in any competition ever permanent, has a loser ever remained a loser, has a winner never failed? Is life then not about excellence? Remaining skillful in all we do, understanding the dynamics of energy needed for given tasks, adapting to ever-changing situations. So isn’t life our own path that we forge for ourselves?
The Process itself is growth, regardless of the outcome. A journey in the martial arts is a journey from within. To that end, as we grow old we need not stop growing. Static as you sit in front of your screens, get up and move. Make life happen, gain actual muscle memory by practice, sing dance, write, love, laugh, cry give it a little color, whatever you wish. This is what you should be, still and present in your centre and ruthlessly active in your lives. Like a living breathing Tornado. Do not lie waiting, do not doubt or fear, do not wait for guidance or miracles. The only miracle is you, and it only lasts for so long. You learn by doing, and no matter how many scars you gain, no matter the gray hair or the aging back. No matter what they say to you. Do it. The child inside you deserves it.
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Water can flow or it can crash. Running water never goes stale so you got to just keep on flowing. It’s a process of continuing growth.” Bruce lee made his point decades ago, and I hope so do I when I show off my skills to my grandchildren. And when I die, perhaps the reaper or Yama or angels come to take me. I might just challenge them too. Of course, nobody wins that one, but at least, I could always fight. No matter what I face, I could always fight.
Until we meet again…