Home > The Knowledge Pool > On the Subtle Stuff

On the Subtle Stuff

Often we’re told that martial arts can’t be learned thoroughly and completely just from a book. We’re told martial arts is something that must be done in order to be understood.I’m not sure I ever really believed this. If a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters could conceivably reproduce Shakespeare, surely it must be possible for someone to learn all their martial arts completely and holistically from a book or DVD.

Today I realized that, sure, if all probabilities are indeed infinite, some gifted soul could indeed learn all they need to know of martial arts this way. So, yeah, it might be possible, but it’s manifestly implausible. Why? Because of the subtle stuff.

What made me feel this way was something that happened at work today. I and a colleague had a fair bit of space and a fair bit of time on our hands and both of us decided it was as good a time as any to get a little stretching in. My colleague began doing a tai chi form of some kind (now, I’ve got to own up and say I know absolutely zip about tai chi, so make what you will of this). I was watching him work through the poses and thought, there’s something wrong with this. As I watched I began to think, This guy is totally faking. He doesn’t study martial arts at all.

It was an uncharitable assumption to make, but make it I did. I based my belief on the subtle stuff: He held his breath throughout the moves, he stared at his feet, he moved as if his centre of gravity was alternately in his hands or his head or his stomach, even wobbling sometimes.

When I asked him who his teacher was he laughed softly and told me the history of his martial arts experiences. In short, none of his experiences had been positive or pleasant ones and in the end, because he wanted so badly to learn tai chi, he’d picked up a few DVDs and was studying on his own.

If it is possible to learn a martial art completely by studying a DVD, I certainly hope he can do it. I’ve never met anyone without commitments to a dojo who practiced martial arts regularly on their own. And I’ve never met anyone who’s taken their self-study so seriously.

His desire to learn impressed me so much that I realized how easy my own path has been. I’ve been lucky to have teachers who have explained the importance of breathing and lines and the twist at the end of an upper block. But I was reminded that not everyone has had it so good, and for someone training without a teacher, those subtle things, so obvious when pointed out, may never be made clear.

I certainly hopes he keeps studying, but more than anything, I hope he finds a teacher. I hope he finds a teacher that he really connects with because the joy and the power in martial arts, for me at least, is often in the subtle stuff.

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Categories: The Knowledge Pool
  1. Mitch Holloway
    March 9, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Most DVD’s/Books…(Good ones at least)…are often created by individuals with a great understanding of the content. Along with the intent to supplement and/or enhance the viewer/reader’s training, I believe the creator has something to say, something to give – but most importantly, a thirst to share their teachings and experiences.

    When I read this post I’m reminded of what I believe a traditional martial art to be, and what I consider to be the advantage in learning an art as opposed to a system. I feel that in learning a traditional art, a student isn’t just shown how to block, punch, kick, etc. What a traditional art aims to instill in the student is to surpass technique alone and embrace the art behind the moves…the defensive skills, for example, becoming almost a side-effect.

    Ideally, all martial arts have a system in which the technique can be learned – the potential to become more than just a system lies in the teaching and the students training agenda. Whether you train a system of defense or a form for vitality and health, I personally believe it takes a very special individual to want to train a martial art – traditional or not.

  2. thr33n0r
    March 29, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    I have found that even when books or DVDs have the real goods in them, it’s not until you have had some guidance and experience under a good teacher that those subtleties have any real meaning. As I train more, I am constantly finding new things in old material that seemed ‘tapped out’ to me in the past. The value of some of these sorts of materials can be to ‘plant seeds’ that can bloom later on, when your mind and body are ready to remember them…

  3. Mitch Holloway
    March 30, 2008 at 10:48 am

    I agree…
    I recently had this discussion with a sensei of mine about building my Karate Library. The books recommended to me were almost designed, over time, to yield more and more bits of information as you read and re-read them. I’m currently re-reading Master Funakoshi’s ‘Karate-Do – My Way of Life’.

  4. tamarasheehan
    March 31, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Interesting. Maybe it’s time for me to go through my own karate library again!

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