Building a martial arts method VII

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Building a martial arts method VII

Material weight vs mental weight

Earlier we mentioned the concept known as jia-jie, which is one of the methods for attaining the strrength that comes from whole-body integration.
Instead of using material weights, in yi chuan people use the weight of intention, or the intention of weight, and this is what is done in the jia-jie method. The idea is: “to resort to visual or imagined situations that activate the muscles required for the work in question”.
Hàn Xingqiao explains this in the work presented earlier:
“There are two modes in the practice of jia-jie:
“The first is concrete jia-jie. For example, you have a large tree in front of you and you imagine that you can move it. You exercise by imagining that you grab the tree with your two hands and, with the help of your arms, you pull it and push it, etc. This is one way of training.
“The second is called formless jia-jie. There is nothing around you, but even so you imagine that you’re standing in front of a large tree with which you are going to train in the same way.
This is the most essential exercise of yi chuan...”
A similar method is applied in tai chi chuan.

When learning tai chi chuan, you have undoubtedly been told to execute the movements “as though you were up to your neck in water and feeling resistance everywhere no matter what movements you make.” When you practice tai chi chuan, this resistance of the water is imaginary and the sensation is formed by your intention (yi). If you try hard to really get into this situation, you will truly feel resistance in all your moves. Moreover, your movements will no longer be empty, like when you are only moving air, because you will think you feel resistance just like when you are actually moving in water.

The imaginary resistance of water is the product of your intentional thought (yi). Although it is produced mentally, it creates effective tensions in the muscles, which are activated to the extent that they contract depending on the situations being imagined. The greater the imaginary burden or weight, the more the muscles are activated in response to the imagined situation. In this way, the muscles are strengthened by a kind of self-burdening. Such burdens have no material existence since they are the product of your intentional thought, where the possibilities are innumerable.
Hàn Xingqiao says that “you need to create thousands of imaginary situations in order to be able to fortify your entire body.”

Consequently, people who know how to utilise yi can take advantage of any imaginary weight whatsoever to strengthen their body. For those who devote themselves to this quest, it is a gift more precious than gold, because they can make use of this imaginary burden wherever or whenever they want. What is more, they can alter the amount of resistance depending on their needs and use it the moment they are ready to exercise.

This phenomenon, which constitutes one of the central themes of our reflections, will be explored further, but first we must clear up a number of issues. For in the martial arts method, there are still many obscure points that lie outside our current way of thinking and which could give rise to certain misunderstandings unless they are explained. These issues are addressed below.

First physical capacities

Athletes who win medals at the Olympic Games obviously have excellent physical capacities which they’ve been able to exploit thanks to a great deal of hard work. Clearly, not just any athlete is able to attain such a high level of performance. I would say that medal winners are able to attain this level by exploiting to the highest degree their “first physical capacities”, which they can do thanks to a certain talent which constitutes their primary energy capital.
In my first period of martial arts practice, I spent a large part of my energy practicing karate. There I met a number of older karatekas whose ability and qualities were truly exceptional. They all excelled in their art thanks to their first physical prowess. All of them had managed to use their first dynamic capital very effectively. However, over time I discovered that all of these people, without exception, seemed to reach the summit of their art around the age of 45, after which they began to decline both physically and healthwise. This decline in their physical condition was all the more surprising since they had all been so brilliant – indeed exceptional – before.

After observing other martial arts and sports disciplines, I am led to believe that people’s “first physical capacities” decline with age. Depending on the discipline, this downhill slide can be offset in different ways by ability and certain technical subtleties, and therefore the high point in each art varies, but few people manage to excel after the age of 45. For example, in disciplines such as the 100-metre dash, swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, etc., the “first physical capacities” play a key role. To be the best, you have to be young, and certainly much younger than the approximate cut-off age of 45 years.

The image of martial art that I was brought up with is of an art that enables you to continue building qualities and prowess throughout life. Having excellent “first physical capacities” is therefore not enough. You also have to have something else. But what?

Second physical capacities or prowess

I have known, or known of, certain martial arts masters who have gone beyond this age barrier. From my research on the martial arts method, I have come to the following conclusion: there is also a second set of physical capacities that are acquired thanks to the complete practice of a specific method of a discipline.
Let’s repeat the two key points: the complete practice of a specific method..

I’ll explain this further, but first, some clarifications. Earlier I said that I seriously trained in karate for over 20 years. But the karate method that I learned was far from being complete or perfect. It was a modern karate known as traditional karate. That is, a competition karate for sporting events based on the traditional form.

In the domain of physical training, reflection on experience is essential, but without forgetting the tendency we all have of limiting ourselves to our own experience. People tell themselves, “I have seen, therefore I know”, just as I did. More than 20 years of serious practice is not negligible, but it is far from being enough to enable us to judge the whole of karate. We easily become prisoners of our own personal experience.

For example, if someone lives several years in China or Japan, they might eventually see themselves as “real connoisseurs” of these countries. As for me, after having lived more than thirty years in Paris, I can naturally say that I know the neighbourhood I lived in very well, but I realize that I am not sufficiently familiar with other neighbourhoods or districts of Paris, or with the many monuments that make the city so beautiful and richly worthwhile. Japan is much larger than Paris, and China far more so… How could anyone claim to know all of either after so little experience? It’s the same regarding my practice of karate.

Actually, prior to World War II, there were many other forms, other modes of practicing karate on the isle of Okinawa. I think and hope that they still exist today, even if to a lesser degree. We have read or heard anecdotes about certain elderly karatekas who managed to preserve their physical condition for a long time. This creates a contrast with other exceptional contemporary karatekas whom I have known but who lacked the specific method of karate as a whole. If they had learned and practiced this method, they would have been able to continue to develop in their practice for much longer, because they would have formed a solid secondary physical prowess.
But to build these skills and capacity, the method is essential. It will be special and different depending on the discipline, because the forms of technical expression vary, but the fundamentals will all be based on the same principle.
I believe that attainment of “second physical prowess” does not depend on the discipline but on the value of the method and on the quality and capacity of the person in question.

Here is my hypothesis:
The practice of a marial arts discipline involves a specific method by means of which one tries to obtain second physical capacities. It is by building such prowess in technical form that we are able to work towards an ideal – i.e., maintaining effectiveness throughout life and progressing continuously until the end of our days.

An (exceptional) example

In his work “Tômei na chikara” (Transparent Force), Ed. Kôdansha, Tokyo 1995, Tatsuo Kimura quotes the words of his master, Yoshiyuki Sagawa.
Here are some of Master Sagawa’s statements quoted in this work:
“Up to the age of seventy, you can fortify your muscles. If you’ve built your body up to that age, your strength will not diminish even after the age of eighty, as in my case....”
“Even if you work constantly to strengthen your body, you’ll need at leat 20 years to build your body passably well. A martial body can’t be built in less time, and without creating such a body, it is impossble to practice well....”
“Every day I do the 24 strengthening exercises. Among others, I train with the heavy stick at a rate of three-hundred thousand blows a year. I’ve been doing so for forty years without ever missing a single day....”
“An amateur might think that you don’t need strength if you’ve developed certain subtleties of technique, which would only demonstrate his total ignorance. Technique must be built on the basis of a truly strong body… Accordingly, I never stay at the same level but evolve constantly, day after day....”

T. Kimura said of his Master:
“At his present age of 92 years, the Master is exceptionally lucid and intelligent. I would say that this is thanks to his physical strengthening. Almost no-one realizes the potential importance of ‘activating the body’. Especially for keeping the brain active, the body plays a prime role....”

The example of Master Y. Sagawa goes well beyond the ordinary idea of effectiveness in relation to age. His case is of course exceptional. But can we not see in him a model, however exceptional, of the life of a man who saw how to develop and deploy his secondary physical prowess to such a remarkable degree?
His example reminds me of the words of a master I once knew: “ If you persevere with a true method, you’ll become truly strong only after the age of retirement.”

Master Yukiyoshi Sagawa was born in 1902 and died in 1998, at the age of 95 years. According to T. Kimura, Master Sagawa progressed continuously until the day of his death. In Japan he is considered one of the greatest martial arts masters of all time. Tatsuo Kimura’s book contains very interesting testimonies and reflections.
You can find some of his works, which I recommend reading, with the help of Internet.
In any event, it is impossible to imagine the level of Master Y. Sagawa’s achievements solely on the basis of his first physical capacities. So I see in him an example, albeit exceptional, for how one’s art is formed thanks to his second physical prowess.

Strength exercises

In the book by T. Kimura mentioned above, there is another anecdote that moved me deeply.

“... Towards the age of ninety, Master Sagawa went to have his heart examined, as he had been under a cardiologist’s care for some time. After checking his heart at rest, the doctor asked him to perform some physical exercises. The Master responded by immediately doing 150 pushups, to the great surprise of the cardiologist…”. Now at the age of 92, the Master says, ‘The moment I got out of the hospital, my technique changed dimension and I made incomparable progress. It is because I never stop thinking….’ Indeed, I can vouch for this change due to the way that he projects me. His efficiency has become incomparable....”

I was very touched and stimulated by this story, which I read in 1996, and it encouraged me to work even harder to be able to develop more of my personal exercises. Part of them can be seen on our website (e.g. Iron bull, bear paws or shiko, etc.)

What is meant by “24 strength exercises”? Why did Master Sagawa do them for so many decades until advanced old age? He says in the book cited above:

“You would fall from the clouds if I told you the content of my exercises….”

“Even if you exercise intensively every day to fortify your body, you will need at least 20 years to attain a passable degree. So it is impossible to build a satisfactory body after only ten years. Without building this physical foundation, you will never be capable of true technique.”

“If you train on the basis of an ordinary body, you will never make true progress. First you must build strength. To my mind, even for sword practice, you first must fortify your body. Later you can work on technique….”

To be continued ...


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